Centering the Periphery

thoughts on law, politics, and the state of the world

Elite Education and the Reproduction of Inequality

This week I have had the occasion to consider once again the intersection of education and inequality. I do this a lot anyway considering that I teach for a living but since I was told that I am out of touch with issues of private secondary education in the United States and its many advances, I decided to familiarize myself a little more with these institutions and the literature about them. The issues that interest me particularly as a professor in a public, majority-minority, research university, are what effects elite education has not on individual lives but rather the overall landscape of social inequality, production of knowledge, and governance. A secondary concern is the ongoing instrumentalization of minority identity in service of the status quo in which some minorities are allowed into otherwise restricted spaces and then used to show that the restrictions do not, in fact, exist.

My understanding of elite education is unavoidably colored by a history of trying to understand the nature and effects of such education in the Indian subcontinent. For those of us from postcolonial states, elite education in English medium schools has been understood as a remnant of a colonial intervention. This is not to say that it is normatively bad but simply to note that education of this sort was a result of the needs of empire. It exists at one intersection of education and governance. Many South Asians are familiar with Macaulay’s minute on Indian education with its famous dismissal of all the knowledge produced by Asians in general:

I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit [sic] or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education.

One of the key requirements of the colonial powers was a functioning and adequately trained Indian bureaucracy. As such, educating Indians was not so much an end in itself but rather a means by which the administration of an extractive and economically exploitative relationship could be managed. An effective native bureaucrat had to cabin his Indianness to a private sphere and if he valued native knowledge, he had to learn it parallel to the formal English education that would make him part of the administrative cadre. Native knowledge had to be unlearned, sublimated, or quarantined in order to allow for professional success. Since independence, at least in South Asia, elite schools produce and reproduce social, professional, and economic elites. Most schools are diverse and have different socioeconomic groups represented yet they have not made much of a difference in changing the inequalities that exist in society. If anything, it has been the widespread access afforded by public education and hotly debated but vigorous quota systems at the federal level that have led to a small measure of advancement for impoverished minorities.

It was recently pointed out to me, the U.S. is not India and things are different here. The implication being that U.S. schools were more enlightened and had changed. Indeed, private schools here may not have the legacy of producing a ruling class for empire. Historically, they seem to be not far off from precisely that—educating the upper classes. But, I wonder if, at this present juncture, they continue to reproduce a ruling class insulated as they are from the changes to public state-based education. Moreover, what might the effects of elite education—albeit enlightened—be on inequality and democracy? And does diversity within the elite structure have appreciable impacts outside the institution itself?

In order to examine these questions, I explore three areas of which I think are particularly important: the reproduction of class inequalities, the impact on public schools, and the use of diversity programs and minorities to hide the epistemic hegemony of dominant groups and normalization of “whiteness” to which minorities must assimilate (or even upper middle-class-ness to which the working class must aspire).

(Re)Producing elites

Elite private schools like their higher education counterparts tend to produce elite individuals who are more powerful than the vast majority of the population. Even if the recent generations of students are more cosmopolitan and less “elitist” than their predecessors, a majority of the pupils must come from the economically and socially advantaged backgrounds in order to maintain the finances that are required to run a private school and its various exceptional programs. For every student who receives economic assistance, there must be another who pays full tuition or a substantial endowment that provides the funding. In many of the elite schools on the East Coast, the legacy tradition continues to ensure that some families will have access whether they merit it or not and those students both conceive of themselves differently and are treated as such by the institution. For an interesting exploration of this issue, Shamus Khan’s ethnography on St. Paul’s School is worth reading.

For argument’s sake, let us assume that a school of 500 students has a 50% population on economic assistance. What might be the class characteristics of the students receiving aid. With tuition for school alone anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 a year, it is very unlikely that children living at or even slightly over the poverty line could afford to attend such a school unless they are given full tuition. The poverty line for a family of four is $24,250 and those earning 180% or roughly $45,000 are considered middle income. Full tuition waivers would cost a school charging $25,000 roughly $7 million dollars a year in aid. If the operating budget is about $20 million, this is an unworkable scenario. Clearly, this is not what is happening. More than likely less than 20% of the student body is receiving “some” aid or even 100% aid. So, without belaboring the point, even with economic assistance, a small (perhaps miniscule) portion of the pupils are poor, a majority of the students come from very wealthy families (top 5% by earnings), and even those who do not would be considered middle income. And the result that logically follows is that the school reproduces the privilege of the upper class students, improves the privilege of the upper-middle class, and the bottom 30% of functionally poor are either represented in miniscule numbers or are not attending these schools at all. Furthermore, even if 30% of the school is comprised of students of color, if a majority of them are wealthy, the school is merely exacerbating the representational problems of wealthy minorities (who don’t need financial assistance) displacing poor minorities because they can bring in the commodity of “diversity” as well as pay full tuition. With regard to the most selective institutions of higher education, the problem of class and its reproduction have been heavily debated. One point that I think is unarguably true is that these institutions produce the vast majority of our leaders, our Presidents, our Supreme Court justices, our business leaders. The concentration of power in the hands of those who come from elite backgrounds is not a demonstration that these individuals have mastered “democracy”, it is a reflection that we are in an oligarchy in which elites control the mechanisms of governance while effectively the vast majority are shut out. This is in no way the equivalent of asserting that an elite education is a bad education. It is merely to point out that quite apart from the content of what is learned—given that most of these schools have a vast array of knowledge to offer including a great deal that encompasses non-Western terrain—the institution itself as a structure is built on and maintains a hierarchy.

Advancing the myth of a meritocracy

Students who attend these schools believe that they are there because they have earned their place. While surely academic standards require students to work hard and to maximize their potential (after all what is it that their parents are paying for if not this?), the idea that merit is the primary reason for students’ success in school fails to account for a number of other factors. For instance, it has been shown wealthy parents leverage substantial school resources to ensure that their children will be distinct (through programs like Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate) from others and these two factors result in greater enrollment in selective postsecondary institutions.

The point here is that it isn’t just hard work and brains. It’s the resources that are available to elites that give them an advantage over pupils in an under-resourced inner city school. Unquantifiable factors such as expectations of achievement, social cohesion and stability are all unearned advantages. Also unearned is the effects of being a legacy student, belonging to a politically powerful subgroup, and so on. The idea that everyone at an elite institution “earned” that place has been thoroughly contested. If in ideal conditions, students do not succeed, then it can be assumed that it is the capability of the student alone. But in ideal conditions, we expect even mediocre students to do well–which is precisely what happens.

Given that these elite schools are also mostly feeder schools that send their graduates on up the stream to Ivy League institutions, they perpetuate the problem by compounding the “pedigree” advantages accruing to precisely the people who don’t need a leg up.

Exacerbating impacts on public schools

A common argument for charter schools and school vouchers is that everyone has a right to go to a school of their choice. And there is something very attractive about diversity in school choices. However, the idea that private schools have no impact on public institutions is untrue. There have been arguments that private schools skim the brightest students leaving those who cannot access private education in a learning ghetto. While this may or may not be true given the diversity of types of private schooling, my concern is with elite schools with substantial tuition costs which cater to the wealthy. There are two impacts on public schools and on democracy in general that I think are worth mentioning.

First, elite schools are designed to reflect the superiority of their students and their professionals no matter how graciously they do it. And they do this at the expense of public schools that suffer simple class and race based reputational discounting. Anyone who has gone to an elite college has experienced the not-so-subtle sorting that occurs between public school students and private school students. Yet, it is highly questionable whether all private school students really outperform public school students. One study suggests that they do not and, indeed, private schools underperform. That study is not restricted to elite schools which likely do not underperform; however, churning out a model Ivy League college student is not the only measure of success which suggests that our very metric of success needs to be questioned.

Furthermore it has been argued that gaps in achievement have more to do with family background than the school itself. So if the school doesn’t really matter as much as has been touted and the actual benefit of going to elite schools is the reputational and pedigree advantages, thereby, reinforcing and exacerbating class and maybe even race differentials, it is not an incredible leap of logic to argue that this, in fact, sets up a social ordering that is oligarchical rather than democratic. And who are these elite students going to the lead in their brave new world? Those educated in public school. Alison Benedikt makes this point a little more hyperbolically than I.

Fleeing the ghetto of public schools is exacerbating inequality and it is irrelevant what fraction of private school students are given aid. Private school students are small fraction of the overall student population. Their already better than average life chances are further improved by private elite education but I have seen no study showing that these schools produce the kind of racially and socioeconomically egalitarian citizens on which fair and democratic societies run. That’s what public school was meant to do. For a variety of reasons, including bureaucratic mishandling, underfunding in some cases, uneven resource distributions, and assaults by conservative lawmakers, public schools are facing tough times. But if the parents who are most able to make an impact through active participation in the school system, the ones most likely to be influential, absent themselves into a gated community of private education, reform becomes harder and “public” becomes a much poorer place.

Whitewashing privilege with diversity

One of the most interesting responses to what seems to be liberal guilt about unearned privilege is the championing of diversity. To paraphrase my friend Oishik Sircar, diversity is the favorite aphrodisiac of the liberal white educator. It is as though allowing a few middle-income minorities into the gated community will mitigate the problem of the rest who are outside the gates. Moreover, if the minorities are sufficiently wealthy, they are likely to be more similar to their white peers than they are to the poor members of their own identity group. Diversity is a messy concept which most educational institutions flatten into skin color and ethnicity and numbers. With sufficient numbers, the assumption that these students of color will bring a different perspective and enrich the education of other students instrumentalizes their identity into an educational benefit. And while this is okay in some sense, it in no way challenges the “normalizing” of white culture into which students of color are placed. Nor does it challenge, for many schools, the pedagogical and epistemological supremacy of dominant culture. I’m sure they agree that a class on hip hop or even jazz is probably a “waste of time” while taking orchestra is not.

Safe spaces are carved out, programs are instituted to ensure that LGBT, black, Asian, and all the “Others” feel safe. These are great programs and should continue but they don’t change the minority experience of being a minority and having to conform to specific notions of appropriate behavior and speech defined by the mainstream and often against minority culture and experience. The only way to actually know this is if a minority speaks out, or if you have behind the scenes conversations with other minorities as an insider. And here again, class matters. Minority students primarily socialized by white culture may not find easy coexistence with those who were raised in predominantly minority communities and schools.

Public education is not so engrossed with diversity for obvious reasons. It has a different problem altogether in that in some schools, the racism is so significant it has resulted in a school to prison pipeline. Black students get punished at disproportionate rates and this continues into the criminal justice system. Moreover, they are discounted even when they perform on par with their white counterparts. The desegregation of schools that was meant to achieve equality has failed. By catastrophically reducing the number of black teachers, a similar kind of hegemony is created in majority white schools. However, there are still schools in which minorities are the majority and while these may be seriously under-resourced, students in these schools do not suffer identity based inferiority. Moreover, there is a sense of ownership in  a public school which creates spaces for epistemological democracy, the demand for a more inclusive knowledge. A lot of attention has been paid to these issues. But it might be argued that wealthy blacks are able to insulate their children by a variety of means one of which is private schooling and socialization among the well off. Poor minorities have to suffer the slings and arrows regardless of where they go to school.

Elite private schools with vigorous diversity programs are to be lauded for their efforts at trying to be inclusive. However, the majority of students, teachers, and administrators of private elite institutions are white. They are not in the position to understand the lived experience of minorities who remain minorities in elite schools. In The Lawrenceville School, for instance, white faculty, administration, students and alumni voiced objections to an African American student body president’s protest of what can only be seen as the school’s culture of white male supremacy.

Three weeks later, the administration told Peterson she would face disciplinary action unless she resigned from her post as student body president…. Peterson was the first black woman to serve in that role at The Lawrenceville School, a prestigious boarding school near Princeton, N.J., that costs around $53,000 a year to attend, making it the most expensive high school in the country.

A critical mass of faculty members and students believed “it was not fitting of a student leader to make comments mocking members of the community,” Dean of Students Nancy Thomas told the Lawrenceville student paper. But the photo was simply the last straw for many white students who never wanted Peterson to be president in the first place — and for Peterson herself, who said she was sick of fighting vicious attacks from the most privileged members of the elite school.

What is considered fitting is determined by existing school culture and administration. Minority students or parents may have little influence particularly if their child is receiving economic assistance. As such, while the student body may be diverse, the knowledge and culture being (re)produced is not. Again from the piece on Lawrenceville:

One freshman student from Shanghai, China, wrote in the Lawrenceville student paper this year that he was fooled by the “faux ‘diversity’” the school advertised.

“Years ago, the average Lawrentian was privileged, Protestant, and deeply involved in athletics; that conception still holds today,” he wrote. “Lawrenceville, in many ways, hasn’t changed much since the twentieth century — it really is a seemingly homogenous, fancy American prep school after all.”

The school is 30% minority. Outspoken minority students have produced a lot of material that indicates that diversity in prep schools is a mixed bag. It certainly isn’t an unqualified success in spite of substantial gains. Moreover, unless minorities make a fuss over their racial identity or white privilege as Peterson did, they are unlikely to set off any alarms in schools who consider “respecting” everyone’s opinion as the prime directive—no matter how politically and economically privileged some of those opinions might already be.


Elite private education has never been a bastion of progressive thinking. Indeed, privatization, exclusivity, and the assumption that these students are the future leaders of the world because they are meritoriously better than others are deeply conservative views. Diversity and inclusion are important and these changes are to be applauded but they should also be contextualized as factors that only mitigate entrenched privilege. In other words, these institutions cater to the very wealthy as such, they are primarily reproducing class privilege that is slightly moderated through diversity. But the number of poor minorities these schools educate will not impact the overwhelming race and economic inequality that prevails in the U.S. And in fact, further privatization is likely to increase those disparities.

In other words, private school change is undoubtedly good for the private school in question but it will not have much of any effect on structural inequalities broadly speaking. Only serious reform and investment in public education will do that. So, we may find another Barack Obama at Choate after it has diversified its students to a seemingly standard 30% threshold and indeed, our Barack might also be lower income at first. But as we all know, one elite educated Obama in power does little to change the lot of all the blacks. If we want to change society, we will have to do it in the public, through the machinery of the state, with radically different ideas of redistribution of resources. To put it directly, diversifying elite institutions is beneficial and worth the effort but it should not be mistaken for structural change. Exceptional individuals who are trained to maintain the status quo are unlikely to dismantle the very institutions that provided their success.

Taking it full circle to India, it turns out elite private schools serve very similar social functions here in the United States after all. I am deeply skeptical that private schools with modest (but important) initiatives with small percentages of students will have any significant impact on inequality over all. Certainly, there is no data to show that they have done since they began to diversify in the 1980s and since then, if anything, elite class privilege has become more entrenched and greater over all in the United States. If elite schools want to produce a great leader beyond the stock Wall Street tycoon or political oligarch, they will have to examine how class is reproduced in their institutions and how race can provide a shield for the continuation of epistemologies of inequality. Furthermore, they will have to come to terms with the use of these modes of inclusion that certainly make administrators feel good about themselves but do little to change a very problematic societal status quo. It won’t do to assume a white savior posture and demand recognition for admitting more poor and minorities while shoring up the privilege of the 1%. As it stands now, these institutions are unlikely to produce a Eugene Debs, a Harvey Milk, or a Malcolm X and they did not produce Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or even a significant number of those now fighting to reduce inequality, racial disparity, and increase democracy.

The Threat of a Secular World

Writing for Electronic Intifada, Professor Joseph Massad argues that liberal and secular Arabs have had a devastating effect on Arab states. Some feminists have argued that liberals and secularists have aided imperialists in their execution of the War on Terror bringing death and devastation to hundreds of thousands. Conservative political leaders in the United States have increasingly sounded the alarm over liberals and secularists impinging the rights of religious peoples. For the past decade, in the view of these writers, it is religion that is under assault and that needs protection. One might think that all religious people are suffering harms. Yet, in the pages of every newspaper, the grim reality is apparent. It has been a struggle to maintain secular public space in many countries ranging from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and even the United States. It is secularism and secularists who are increasingly under assault for speaking out against the rising tide of religious extremism. And collaboration/ambivalence/resistance does not fall neatly into a secular/agnostic/religious ordering.

This morning, I read an editorial written by Tahmima Anam, a Bangladeshi novelist, about the attacks on secular and atheist bloggers in Bangladesh. Three have been killed in the space of 24 months, hacked to death in the street in front of their loved ones, brutally killed by those who disagreed with their writing. What is startling, though hidden in the accounts so far, is the fact that not all the bloggers were prominent. As Anam notes, one was a quiet man who mostly posted on Facebook. An activity in which many of us engage and often quite thoughtlessly. He was searched for and targeted by his killers.

Anam observes:

The space between the killers and their victims is the distance of nanoseconds, the time it takes to execute a search. In some senses, their deaths are random and impersonal. But if the technology of targeting the victims is new, the technology of killing them is ancient and intimate.

The frequency with which we hear warnings to “respect” Islam and the news about the violence against secularists has become chilling. The message is clear that religious zealots will resort to murder in the name of their beliefs. Only now are we waking up to the reality that these are no idle threats.

The ambivalent relationship that many states have with their Islamist factions explains why  concerted action to find these killers has been slow and little action to prevent targeting of secularists has been taken. From Egypt to Indonesia, states have tried to keep the lid on the Islamist Pandora’s box half ajar. On one hand, they have capitulated to demands for blasphemy punishments and hounded critical writers like Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie. On the other, they have killed Islamists, some just young boys, with impunity when it has suited the state and often in the name of national security. But what about protection in the name of the people? When secularists provided a political whip by which the leading party in Bangladesh could excoriate the opposition, they used secularism to its maximum advantage. They posited themselves as the protectors of the secular public space. However, little has been done to actually protect secularism in Bangladesh. Most people deplore the murders but understand the rationale for the killings. The question is raised as to why these bloggers were allowed to write against Islam? Once again, the victims are blamed for speaking. We forget that it is not so easy to distinguish what constitutes “harm” to religion. And if the state muzzles such speech, how far should they go and where should they draw the line? As it is, many Muslim-majority states are repressive in terms of the amount of free, critical, political speech they will allow. Should we really demand that they use their already extensive power to suppress even more of our freedoms? Many Muslim states have already resorted to using the punitive power of the state to quell the rise of Islamism when those Islamists act against the ruling party. But this does not suffice and such sporadic engagements do nothing to instill confidence in the law. After all, police power has been used against all opponents, not just Islamists. The protection that is afforded is to the rulers, politicians and the state, not to the people from whom they purportedly derive power and legitimacy.

In Bangladesh, a majority of the Islamists now banding together in groups with Arabic names like Hefazet-e-Islam, Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh (founded by Osama bin Laden), and Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, are from the poorer, rural classes. Educated in privately-run madrassas and taught a conservative and pinched form of Islam, they are possessed of little that prepares them for modern life. Rapid urbanization, changes in gender dynamics, increasing neoliberalization with its attendant wealth disparities create the conditions in which youth turn to ideological groups that provide them with structure and meaning and a sense of power. With few other prospects and in a society willing to leave them behind, they are ignored by a ineffectual political establishment whose only interest is retaining control over the government. Moreover, with Bangladesh’s globally-recognized focus on women’s advancement, little attention has been paid to young men who are increasingly vulnerable to radicalism. And when radicalized, these men come after all that symbolizes their disenfranchisement: women in the public, secular thinkers,  and religious heretics. But it has often also been the case that the extremists have been from middle-class backgrounds, educated, and not particularly deprived of opportunity. In a place like Bangladesh where they belong to a majority and are not faced with racial marginalization, what explains their behavior? Interventions to prevent radicalism among the poor seem obvious. But for this latter group, a criminal justice response that sends the message that they cannot act with impunity to destabilize society is imperative.

Whereas, secularists, feminists, and religious dissidents are engaged in dialogue and intellectual struggle, the right-wing Islamists are willing to use violence in ever increasingly brutal ways. You can’t bring an argument to a machete fight. Feminists, secularists, and others who do not wish to live in the fevered dream of an “Islamic state”  are threatened with violence and they are being killed in spectacular fashion. In this context, blaming liberals for demanding action against Islamists is entirely logical. Asking for justice and protection cannot be conflated with collaborating with a global War on Terror and imperialism just because interests converge. Such easy equivalences make it impossible to work for improvement in the  country except via an Islamist politics. And that makes no sense whatsoever to the vast majority of us who practice Islam in differing ways but have no wish to see it used an ideology. And that may be a very liberal standpoint but it is better than the forced adherence to a sort of religious formalism and zealotry that partakes of the worst in our religious histories.

Such forced adherence was evident in a recent incident reported in the news. Folk-singer, Anushe Anadil and her arts group Jatra were forced to leave the Sunderbans by a group of Islamist clerics. They were told that either they don burkas or they leave. According the newspaper reports, the clerics were unhappy about the women in the village meeting with the organization. After paying what amounts to a ransom, and with the help of village women, Anadil and her colleagues were allowed to leave the village in the early morning hours of Thursday.

According to the Dhaka Tribune:

“For three weeks, the clerics of Joymoni have been unhappy with the women of the village coming out of their homes and dreaming about earning a living,” she said.

Threats culminated when the four Jatra staff members were encircled by around 300 men at the local marketplace on Wednesday evening.

What is to be done but resist? Even while we work for the betterment of all people in the country, men, boys, and girls and women, the reality is that there are people committed to stopping that work in the name of religion. In order to continue, those of us committed to gender justice must insist on expansive, capacious visions of human flourishing in which one’s gender does not determine one’s opportunities. If we don the burka, it will be because we choose it. And to ensure that have a  meaningful choice, we must, on occasion, ask for punishment by the state where it is due and against those who would deprive us of our rights based on our gender. And when the state fails to ensure our safety, we must hold it accountable as well.

Most feminists are not in support of indiscriminate carpet bombing via drones, nor do we imagine that every rural male is an Islamist zealot. But we are also all too aware that the zealots exist. They are intimidating and killing their own. Demanding that they be stopped should not be mistaken for asking an external power to come and occupy our lands and enslave us to its economic and political agenda. We are not comprador elites for wanting to live according to our conscience and in freedom. Imperial feminism exists. Comprador elites exist. But in this struggle, these labels hide more than they reveal. Spurious charges make working in solidarity for a stable future more difficult than it already is. We need to get our priorities straight on this.

Anam’s opinion piece in the Times is entitled, “Save Bangladesh’s Bloggers.” It should be called “Save Bangladesh’s Secularism.”

Solidarity, Speech, and Islamophobia in the Wake of Charlie Hebdo

The Charlie Hebdo shootings are a tragedy. The idea that anyone should lose their life over speech seems remarkably antiquated hearkening back to the inquisition and being burned at the stake: A history all to familiar in the West. Yet, now it is terrorists professing Islam who have taken to violently eliminating those they disagree with in ordinary places far from any battlefield. And Muslims of every stripe are again asked to take responsibility for acts they did not commit nor agree with. Each time a person professing Islam commits an act of murder and mayhem, the demands that all Muslims condemn the acts resurface. Those who would posit a grand theory of terror using a single variable-Islam- as an explanation again take to their soapboxes. Richard Dawkins, a supposed scientist who ought to be skeptical of grand theories, Bill Maher, a supposed liberal, and, of course, some right wing conservatives from whom we have come to expect simplistic explanations all become relevant again. They should thank ISIS and Al Qaeda for they benefit from these atrocities. And Islamophobia–the hatred of Muslims and Islam–is justified as a “rational” response. Suddenly, “we are all Charlie Hebdo”–in other words proponents of rabidly racist free speech.

Even though it has been a bleak time for Muslims, there is cause for some hope. People are beginning to deconstruct the stock responses in a way that shows how unreasonable they really are. Muslims themselves are speaking out and demanding an end to the double standards. And maybe, we are all realizing that when these events happen, a rapid and brutal backlash against Muslims becomes a recruiting tool for our enemies. If we really appreciated this last point collectively, we might fashion better responses.

From the week’s discussions, here are some ideas that I think are worth thinking about:

1) Anders Breivik killed 77 people in his rage-filled, Islamophobic rampage. “We” did not ask for an apology or even get a condemnation of Islamophobia from all who share some aspect of his identity. We don’t hold all white men accountable for Timothy McVeigh or ask that Irish-descended people like Bill Maher explain their loyalty. Muslims should stop reacting to the need for reassurance.

2) We need more education not less. Right now there are too many people masquerading as experts. We have people like Brigitte Gabriel who has some personal experience which she’s elevated to expertise. We have Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others of her ilk. I was once treated badly by an Australian. This in no way makes me an expert on Australia. Nor does this one act provide evidence for the venality of all Australians. Yet we believe people who spread hate born of personal experience like it was gospel. In reality, it is a perverse kind of therapy for the deranged. Their opinion is not equal to others’ knowledge. Let’s recognize this for what it is.

3) We are not all Charlie Hebdo. Some populations are disenfranchised, marginalized, and demonized. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists fanned the flames of this marginalization. They had a right to speak, draw, and live. But we don’t have to become racists to recognize this. Nor do we have to agree with their work. If Charlie Hebdo were printing a string of anti-Jewish cartoons before World War II, I would not support them for their “anti-clericalism”. We know what that led to. Solidarity does not mean that we become people we disagree with even as we defend their right to offend us. We also have a right to push back on them through our speech.

4) Criticizing Islam in a time when hating Muslims and hateful depictions of Islam are ubiquitous is not courageous. Demonizing a group that is also relatively powerless is not courageous. It is certainly not speaking truth to power. Reprinting the cartoon is not an act of defiance but an act of reinscribing racism. A true act of defiance would be to thwart the powers in our own communities that prevent equality and justice, that sow division. If one wants to write against Islamists or other leaders, that is perfectly fine–bring on the cartoons lampooning Baghdadi or Sisi or Bibi. Stereotyping an entire religion is not even intelligent let alone brave as the Jewish holocaust should have taught us.

5) Free speech is for everyone. We need to be less hypocritical in our support of it. In the United States, critics of Israel have faced repeated attempts to silence them through intimidation, employment actions, and harassment. People translating inflammatory Islamist texts can be jailed for long periods. Teaching ethnic history (or in some places just history) has been considered racist and unacceptable. Muslims are routinely excoriated for simply being Muslim. That too is a diminishing of freedom of expression. Moreover, only some speech gets attention. Even if Muslims condemn all the violence, no one is listening because the idea that all Muslims support this kind of violence makes people feel better on a level. The simplicity of an “us v. them” explanation is attractive when emotions are high. This is why the Muslims who died in the Charlie Hebdo attack receive far less press than the gunmen.

5) On one hand, the demonization of Islam and the repeated insults to the most important person in Islamic history is not really blasphemy when it comes from non-Muslim Frenchmen who possess a particular privilege by dint of their native background, it is just racist and it recalls a long line of anti-Muslim hatred starting from before the Crusades. As a child, I remember Roget’s thesaurus containing “Muhammad” under false prophet as an antonym for prophet! On the other hand, Muslims need to do away with blasphemy as a punishable act because it is too easily used to silence needed dialogue. Blasphemy is integral to free thought and Islamic states with regressive laws have spent far too much time prosecuting freethinkers.  The  West needs to come to terms with its longstanding problem with Islam and its own brand of suppression, it is not quite the bastion of free thought or speech as it sometimes believes. Both sides are failing.

6) The cartoons should be ignored–not everything deserves a response. If someone draws a picture of a blond-haired, green-eyed woman in a compromising position and labels it “Cyra,” I would ignore it because it obviously isn’t me. Why take for real that which is not? Yes it’s a representation but it does not have to be given the importance of either truth or reality. Gods, religions and prophets do not require defense. They have survived quite well enough.

7) The more majorities oppress, regulate, and pursue their Muslim minority populations, the more radicalized some portion of those people will be. To deradicalize, you have to think about what motivates people to join these groups. If radical imams are the only channel of anger for the disenfranchised, we can expect more violence with religious integuments.

8) There will not be a Muslim holocaust in the West. Just lots of Muslims in jail and more marginalization and ghettoization resulting in greater poverty and more violence. We have traded concentration camps for other forms of repression and isolation. We can learn this from the history of subordinated populations in any number of countries. The death and destruction is being visited on Muslims in the East (pace people who will take exception to the simplistic geography). And very often, postcolonial repressive regimes are to blame for the devastation even if imperial forces are also at work.

9) The majority-Muslim nations need to rethink their approach to Islamists. We need new theories about why it is on the rise and what to do about it. Old theories are failing us. And we desperately need a revival of parties that will fight for social justice, democracy and equality through secular means and in opposition to both Islamists and neoliberals.

10) A society that demands that innocent people pay for the crimes of the guilty cannot claim to be a society in which law rules. There is no justification for harming people because they belong to a religion or a race. No one should be threatened for their identity or their ideas. When those values become hemmed in with caveats, there are bound to be problems.


Comprehending Our Violence – Revisited

This week, the Senate Report on the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques was made public. The only way that the revelations could come as any surprise is if one resolutely disregarded the many reports that have emerged from Abu Ghraib, Camp Delta, Iraq, Guantanamo, and others. Moreover, it would require the complete deafness to the accounts of survivors as reported by journalists, academics and human rights/civil rights activists. During a period of time when the country is still dealing with the racial tensions and the movements to bring greater accountability to the criminal justice system, the report gives us yet another opportunity to examine our national identity as champions of the rule of law as we project it across the globe and the reality of our violence that fails to match up.

CIA Director John Brennan points out in his speech today that the harsh interrogation techniques or in simpler terms, torture, were authorized by the legal functionaries of the United States government. Having received the legal go-ahead, the CIA under the Bush administration undertook its mission to obtain information through the use of torture with aplomb. Not only do we have torture reports and evidence of abuse from the sites in Afghanistan and Iraq, we also partnered with autocratic states throughout the world which helped us run black sites to which terrorist suspects would be rendered.

Even while the report is being dissected in the U.S. media, there is precious little analysis on the international legal consequences of the admission that we tortured. For instance, we are a signatory to the Convention Against Torture. It is undeniable that we have violated the treaty obligations that we signed on to. At least one UN official has suggested that we ought to be held accountable for undermining the treaty.

The fear now is whether the admission will now result in the possible prosecution of those officials who were responsible. A lot of people are calling for prosecutions.  But given that the US is not party to the International Criminal Court, such prosecutions are left to domestic courts. The U.S. federal courts could hear domestic claims as they did in United States v. Pessaro in which a contractor was prosecuted for violating the Convention Against Torture (CAT). However, it has been made clear that the Department of Justice will not prosecute. That leaves other countries who might consider prosecuting to do so in their own courts. There is a real fear that the report will be the basis of such prosecutions when Bush-era officials travel abroad. However, the real question is whether the subjects of torture, some of whom have been left injured, will be able to bring cases against government officials.

The CAT requires signatories to provide redress. Just as terrorists are subject to universal jurisdiction and capture in whichever territory they may be found, torturers too may be captured and extradited or tried by any state. As Christopher Hall wrote in 2007:

The universal criminal jurisdiction provisions of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment …which require each state party to extradite or submit any case involving a foreigner in territory subject to its jurisdiction suspected of torture committed abroad against another foreigner to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution. What is not generally known is that Article 14 of the Convention, which contains no geographic restriction, requires each state party to ensure in its legal system that any victim of an act of torture, regardless of where it occurred, obtains redress and has an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation, including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible.

What does this mean for the United States? How can we abide by these requirements while immunizing the key individuals who authorized torture? The answer is we can’t. The Obama administration is undoubtedly violating CAT by refusing to prosecute. International law’s limits are clearly demarcated at our borders.

After Ferguson: Confronting the Myths of a Post-Racial America

The nation is convulsing after the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York. After the past week during which two grand juries failed to indict white police officers for killing unarmed black men, many are left contemplating the state of race relations in the United States. And to fuel the debates, similar stories of death by police are coming to light in rapid succession: November 21, Akai Gurley was shot outside his apartment. The officer who fired the fatal shot called his union representative as Gurley lay dying. On November 22, 2014, an officer shot and killed 12 year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio only minutes after arriving at the scene. Rice was playing with a toy gun, a possibility of which the police dispatcher was aware. On December 4, Rumain Brisbon was shot and killed outside his home when delivering food to his family.

Social media has been afire with outrage and calls for solidarity. Protests are ongoing across the country. Yet with each expression of pain and rage on Facebook and Twitter, there are parallel statements justifying the outcomes, denying racism, and questioning the motives of the protestors. The conversations on social media map the segregation so physically apparent in Ferguson and in many of our neighborhoods. Blacks see it one way, whites another and there seems little hope of convincing the other side. The mainstream media is no better, newspapers such as the Washington Post, contain conflicting if not polar opposite opinions in the same edition. Is this the post-racial America we were promised after the election of Barack Obama?

Of course, most people realize that the election of a black President in no way heralded the end of racial discrimination in the United State. Even a cursory exploration of the white anger against the President demonstrates the virulent racism that has grown exponentially in the past six years. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented a 813% increase in patriot groups since the election of Barack Obama. The rise of the Tea Party has given an imprimatur of political legitimacy to an otherwise supremacist ideology. In spite of attempts at diversifying and presenting people of color like Ben Carson and Ted Cruz as leaders in the movement, no reasonable person seriously believes that the Tea Party is committed to racial justice. Since its inception, it has made a concerted effort to ensure that programs benefiting minorities are scaled down if not eliminated: affirmative action, welfare, healthcare, public education have all been targets of the movement while national security, resistance to immigration reform, and tough-on-crime policies directed at regulating minorities have been championed.

How is it that what seems a glaring example of racial injustice like the impunity afforded white police when they kill blacks even when caught on film fails to convince so many whites of the existence of racism? What allows whites to continue to believe in the façade of equal protection in the face of minorities vociferously protesting to the contrary? What allows even white friends and allies to dismiss personal stories of racism as well as the mountains of data that show its existence as merely a series of unfortunate events? Many factors are at play in the continued structural support for the status quo and the mistaken belief that our racial problems are in the past. Yet a few common threads have been emerging in the recent conversations on Facebook and Twitter as well as in the mainstream media that hold some clues about the tenacity of denial.

  • Criminality Justifies Use of Lethal Force

After the failure to indict Darren Wilson, racism-deniers focused on Mike Brown’s criminality. They argue that because Brown had committed a crime, he did not deserve the sympathy of law-abiding citizens. Further, because some witnesses including Wilson claimed that Brown “charged” him—an observation refuted by other witnesses—there was no choice but to kill him. According to Wilson, he was in fear of his life and acted in self-defense against an unarmed man. Brown’s criminality is used to obscure the central point: the police are not permitted to extrajudicially kill criminals. A subjective fear for their lives when only one is in possession of state authority and a lethal weapon ought to be carefully scrutinized. Moreover, a number of those who have been shot to death have died not while committing a serious crime but for minor infractions or failing to obey police. The victim’s criminal record is, nevertheless, used to justify police use of force as though the actions were provoked.

Human rights bodies worldwide routinely criticize the excessive use of force in Third World countries where paramilitary police are used to repress citizens. In the United States, the use of deadly force by a militarized police increasingly trained to subdue populations through use of SWAT tactics and violence does not register as a human rights violation even when the victim is a child. In many ways, the tactics that have become commonplace are learned in counterterrorism training and drug interdiction where the suspect is guilty until proven innocent.

  • Every Event is an Isolated Event

Like white terrorism, white police homicides of innocent civilians are treated as isolated events: Tragedies perhaps but certainly not a systemic problem. Once again, focusing on the cases in which criminals were killed, the victim’s identity and actions are used to obscure the structural problem of racial injustice. How many isolated anomalous incidents of white police officers killing black men will it take to demonstrate a pattern of subordination? If we continue to look at each dot without connecting them, is there any chance of seeing a bigger picture? In his Washington Post commentary, Paul Cassell, Professor of Law at the University of Utah, focuses on the testimony of a single witness to claim that the grand jury proceeding was fair. While it is certainly plausible to examine this particular case in isolation, the failure to consider the outrage voiced by law professors across the country who disagree with the outcome and to not comment on the broader societal context in which these incidents occur conveniently hide the structural racial inequality in the United States.

There is also the problem of mischaracterizing the real isolated event. The shooting in Utah of Dillon Taylor, a white male with a criminal past by a black police officer was used by some on social media to demonstrate a double standard. Why, they asked, has there been less outrage about this shooting. On one level, of course there should be outrage for any extrajudicial killing by the state. On the other hand, this is the real anomaly. A black officer shooting an unarmed white male is not an event made banal by its ubiquity as is the Brown/Wilson case. Nor does it reflect the systemic subordination, ghettoization, resource-deprivation of a group.

We need to connect the dots in order to see the picture of racial inequality. But we also need to be aware of the global context in which brown bodies have become disposable. The War on Terror has suspended procedural protections for Muslims across the globe. President Obama was able to order the killing of an American teenager in Yemen extrajudicially because that child may have posed a threat to the United States. How qualitatively different is this from Darren Wilson shooting Mike Brown for fear of his life?

  • Obeying the Police Could Prevent These Deaths

On occasion, someone on social media has remarked that Brown was resisting arrest and that is what led to his death. Certainly tangling with cops is a risky strategy. However, several other cases demonstrate that death at the hands of police has little to do with compliance or non-compliance but rather the subjective fear of the officer in question. Eric Garner was killed by the use of an illegal chokehold after telling police 11 times that he could not breathe. In 2009, the Chicago Tribune ran a story documenting the killing of black men: In a suburb of Houston, a 23 year-old black man was killed while sitting in his own SUV. Police thought he’d stolen it. In Louisiana, a 73 year-old man was shot at a family gathering. More recently, on December 4, 2014, 34 year-old Rumain Brisbon was bringing dinner home. He was killed on his doorstep in Phoenix, Arizona because police mistook his pill bottle for a gun.

Racism-deniers have been quick to focus on the character and actions of the victims. However, it is the police that ought to be scrutinized. In some cases, the officers have a history of complaints made against them. In other cases, they come from troubled departments. We should be looking at the misuses of authority that allow police to demand obedience to unreasonable and demeaning demands. Why should police be able to demand compliance with stops and searches when they lack any probable cause? Why should minorities be forced to endure rough treatment at the hands of those whose motto is to “protect and serve”? Why should they take on the demeanor of blacks in the Jim Crow South when addressed by police? Recently, civil rights lawyer, Chaumtoli Huq was arrested because she did not move from outside a New York restaurant while waiting for her husband and child. She had just returned from a pro-Palestinian rally wearing ethnic clothing. Police forcefully handcuffed and arrested her not for obstructing the sidewalk (which she was not doing) but because she did not comply with their unreasonable demands that she move. Black and brown people are simply expected to obey whereas whites may resist. Jody Westby, who faced down police officers in Washington, DC when they tried to question a black man, demonstrated the difference. Of course, the police officer was a black woman herself.

While bowing and scraping to those who are sworn to protect us “might” save us from being killed, the larger question is what permits police to assert this kind of authority? The CATO Institute’s report on police misconduct for 2010 shows that by percentage police are almost as likely to commit violent crimes as the general population. Moreover, in four categories (assaults, sexual assaults, murder, fatal excessive force), police offend at higher rates than the general population. The same report tells us that in spite of these shocking numbers, the conviction and incarceration rates are half those of the general population. Unfortunately, the message sent by the Ferguson and New York grand juries underscores the impunity that the police seem to enjoy.

Across the United States, the police have become increasingly militarized. A number of police departments are training their officers in methods designed more for Fallujah than Ferguson. Ostensibly this is needed to ensure national security. But because of the continued use of racial profiling to pursue Muslims, blacks, and Latinos in the Wars on Terror and Drugs that has repeatedly violated civil rights, due process of the law has been radically eroded.

  • The Justice System is Broken/The System Works

The justice system’s racism, which has caused the policing and incarceration of blacks disproportionately, has been well documented by Professor Michelle Alexander of Ohio State University. In her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander forcefully argues that the state pursues blacks for petty crimes that whites often get away with, incarcerates them at very high numbers, and then burdens ex-convicts with a life-long stigma that prevents them from improving their lives. Proportionally, blacks are policed, incarcerated, placed in solitary, re-arrested, and then locked out of employment, benefits, and advancement for their crimes at disproportionately high numbers. In a system which is designed to maintain white privilege as Daria Roithmayr has suggested in Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage, the failure to indict a white police officer for killing a black criminal does not indicate a breakdown. Wilson benefited from a prosecutor who, like him, undoubtedly plays an integral part in jailing the Mike Brown’s of the world. Prosecutors work closely with the police. The system, analyzed using a critical race lens, is set up not to get an indictment and it worked very well.

In addition, the mainstream media has played its own part creating a very real social fear of black men by continually conjoining racial identity with criminality and poverty. It is no wonder that Darren Wilson described Brown as subhuman—an “it”—and a demon. Social constructions of blackness in the mainstream laid the foundation for the fear that Wilson felt when confronted with Brown. And it gave Wilson an all too familiar defense underwritten by racism.

Of course, this is not to say that the people arguing that the system works to provide equal treatment are right. If race neutrality resulting in fair outcomes is the measure of success, then clearly the system does not work. The failure to indict the officers involved in the Garner homicide suggests that even in the face of irrefutable evidence, justice did not prevail. All except the choke-holding officer were given immunity from prosecution. Those same officers demonstrated a chilling lack of concern after Garner’s death as they stood around his corpse as though nothing of great consequence had transpired. That callous disregard is the subject of a new video now coming to light. Proponents of police body cameras relying on the belief that better evidence will yield better outcomes must think again.

  • The Focus Should be on Black-on-Black Crime

Former New York City mayor, Rudy Guiliani’s contribution to the Ferguson analysis was to once again high light what should be our actual focus: black on black crime. Given that most crimes are committed within communities: blacks against blacks and whites against whites, the call for such a focus can be reduced to a tautological centering of our attention on…crime. Moreover, given Alexander’s work, it would be hard to argue that the state isn’t focused on black crime. The argument that far more blacks are killed by other blacks (just as whites are killed by other whites) obscures the problem at hand: pervasive structural racism. The more important question is how many blacks are killed by the state without due process as compared to other races—particularly whites. To be clear, it is not just black men who are at risk, the numbers of black women who have lost their lives to law enforcement is now coming to light. Taken together, blacks are 3 times more likely to be killed by the police than their white counterparts. Black male teens are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed than white teens. And that’s where the disparity becomes problematic showing that there is no equal protection or equal treatment.

Recent events and protests are the bubbling over of a simmering racial problem that the United States continues to ignore. If anything, the country has become more racially polarized after 9/11 and the election of Barack Obama. Whites have used the advancement of a few minorities to deconstruct the legal protections against discrimination. In the area of policing and public security, increasing counter-terrorism training and the relative judicial immunity of law enforcement has resulted in increased regulation of minority populations. For many whites, the default position remains blaming the victim and propping up the unearned privileges that they enjoy. And to do so, a strategy of misdirection and denial continues to play an important part.


 Third World Approaches to International Law Conference 



On Praxis and the Intellectual 

The American University in Cairo 

Egypt, 22 – 24 February 2015 


The first TWAIL conference in the global South will be held in Cairo from 22 to 24 February 2015. In the context of the ongoing revolutionary processes across the Middle East and North Africa, the thematic focus of the conference is that of the intellectual as a political actor: the animation of praxis, broadly conceived as reflection, agitation, and transformative action. 

The theme necessitates self-reflection as TWAIL has sought to distinguish itself from other critical legal approaches through its political and transformative commitments. We invite presentations and panels that seek to engage with these issues. For instance, how do we understand and interrogate our roles as intellectuals in political life? What is the relationship between our scholarly endeavors and societal structures; whether preserving the status quo, shaping reform, or advocating for radical change? What are the various conduits that link our work as intellectuals with politicians, activists, advocates, revolutionaries, civil servants, soldiers, artists, writers, union representatives, civil society leaders, peasant movements, and so on? How does the idea of TWAIL as praxis relate to TWAIL as theory and/or method? How does it differ from other notions of praxis? 

As with previous TWAIL conferences, this is an opportunity for us to take stock and look to the future. It provides a forum for the TWAIL community to reconnect – this time in the global South. At the same time, the conference seeks to deepen and re-imagine engagement with underexplored alliances such as with indigenous movements, environmental issues, and transnational intellectual and political actors in the Middle East and North Africa. To this end, the conference also seeks to pursue relationships with potential interdisciplinary allies, whether scholars or practitioners, in cognate fields. 

We welcome submissions of proposed presentations or panels (composed of three speakers) relating to the above themes. Applications should include: 

 An abstract of your proposed presentation (300 words maximum) or panel (900 words maximum). 

 Your name(s), institutional affiliation(s), and contact information. 


Applications should be emailed to by 15 July 2014. 

The conference will be hosted by the Department of Law at the American University in Cairo, with the support of the National University of Ireland Maynooth, the University of Windsor, and Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. Limited ground transportation and all conference catering, materials, and activities will be covered by the host organizations. A limited amount of funding for travel costs and accommodation will be available to assist presenters based in the global South on the basis of financial need. Please indicate at the time of submission if you will need such assistance. 

We look forward to seeing you in Cairo. 

About TWAIL 

Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) is a movement encompassing scholars and practitioners of international law and policy who are concerned with issues related to the global South. The scholarly agendas associated with TWAIL are diverse but the general theme of its interventions is to unpack and deconstruct the colonial legacies of international law and engage in decolonizing efforts. The term was coined in the 1990s through an alliance of scholars committed to critically investigating the mutually constitutive relationship between international law and the third world/global South. For legal projects operating at the margins of the mainstream discipline, the TWAIL network enables solidarity and mutual support through a shared political commitment to advocating for the interests of the global South. It endeavors to give voice to viewpoints systemically underrepresented or silenced. The group first met at Harvard Law School in 1997 and has grown rapidly since then, with conferences at Osgoode Hall Law School in 2001, Albany Law School in 2007, and Oregon Law School in 2011. This conference brings together the first major gathering of TWAIL scholars in the global South. Building upon past TWAIL events, and with praxis in mind, the conference aims to provide the space for scholars to continue to collaborate and conspire. 

TWAIL in the Middle East 

& North Africa 

International law has played a pivotal role in shaping the Middle East and North African region, from its borders and its politics to its economics and its natural environment. Changing regional dynamics in recent years highlight the critical space that the region continues to occupy in international affairs. Young Arab and African scholars, practitioners and activists persistently interrogate and productively engage with an international system that has played a complex and often detrimental role in local struggles for equality and social justice. As the region evolves through a time of change, TWAIL can shed light on the conservative, transformative, and radical potential of international law and policy. Additionally, while Arab scholars and jurists such as Mohammed Bedjaoui and Georges Abi-Saab were integral to the underpinnings of TWAIL, voices from the region remain relatively under-represented in contemporary TWAIL scholarship. This conference aims to encourage and highlight the work of young Arab and African scholars of international law, linking them with each other and with existing global networks of research and support. The hope is to connect, in a mutually beneficial fashion, innovative thinking and critical practice on international law and policy from the Middle East and North Africa with that in the rest of the world.


Thanks for visiting the website. The purpose of this site is to provide information, news, and commentary on areas that I am engaged in intellectually and as an activist. I will also post calls for papers and other conference information that may be of interest to my networks. Please do check back frequently to see what is new. 

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