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Praise for Miss Saundra. #EssentialWorkers @ School

In the second grade, I started in a new school that was designed as a progressive environment where students, teachers and administrators were all on a first-name basis. Radical, even in ’82, our school was forward about gender, race and class diversity. Despite this, I only had one Black teacher in my elementary school years – the amazing music teacher. As kids, we could see few other Black adults: the assistant librarian, a handful of the lunchroom ladies, as well as the Black middle- and high-school teachers we saw in the same building. This meant that the Black adult we most consistently interacted with was Miss Saundra, the janitor. 

Miss Saundra appeared around corners, could surprise you out of a closet you hadn’t even noticed was there. She was always on hand should there be any major mess or spill. Best of all, our school gleamed from top to bottom, every classroom, every hallway, every bookshelf, every restroom – every desk! It felt lovely to go to school every day, the floors shined, the windows sparkled, and even the banisters were pristine. I am certain this level of hygiene must have taken a team, but I remember Miss Saundra, probably because she was friendly to me. I can still see her, unbending her back to look at us, and speak face to face.

If I ever had to come to school early to play in the gym or have breakfast, or stay late for an after-school activity, Miss Saundra would likely be there, tidying up. She always took time to greet us. She was even there for school dances, and asked nothing in return, and we knew nothing of her outside the labor she devoted to us in the background. She was our school’s magic negro.

Other than the school guard who was not armed with anything but charm, Miss Saundra, might have been the first at school, followed by the ladies making breakfast. These were our essential workers – like the air we breathed in the heart of our city. I like to think because of their personalities we felt at home in our environment and therefore enjoyed school more fully.

Kids carry on.

When I was in the third grade, our teacher – a tall, grey-haired white man of grand stature who taught me I could master math even though it wasn’t easy for me – sent all the girls ahead to music class. He held the boys back for a chat. Apparently, someone had urinated in the second-floor boys’ bathroom, and they’d worked out that only our class had taken a break between cleanings. Since teachers had separate restrooms, I thought it must have been Miss Saundra who’d discovered the mess, and so I wondered what that conversation was like with our teacher, who was now accusing us! Though he didn’t demand we rat out the culprit, he called it “nasty,” and said we could get electrocuted, because “electricity travels through water,” wagging his index finger like it was on fire. With that, he sent us off to music!

This was probably the first time that I’d been explicitly asked to identify as a gender, and it was over THIS! I knew that whoever had done it would have needed an audience. So not only did some fool piss on the wall, some other fool(s) stood around and watched! I thought, what bastard did this! Didn’t they know Miss Saundra would have to clean it? Didn’t she greet them, and ask them how they’re doing like she does me? Did they ‘see’ Miss Saundra everyday like she saw us? Why would they piss on her parade? Why give Miss Saundra the blues for your pissing contest! 

I stopped by the bathroom on the way back from music class. Sure enough, Miss Saundra had been done had it squeaky, bleachy clean! I could never have imagined girls’ doing something like that. 

I knew that like me, Miss Saundra was an outsider in a space where I belonged. I knew people like Miss Saundra, so she was not a stranger to me. I had no ambitions of becoming a janitor, but I certainly knew women, in my family and in my community, who did this sort of work. And those women I knew who did that sort of work encouraged people like me to do well in school, so I could take advantage of the kinds of choices they didn’t have. I had no reason to think Ms. Saundra less of me. What’s more, even though I felt strange in my own body, she treated me as human, especially. The gratitude I feel for her sounds like a tambourine in my own theme song. 

#EssentialWorkers, #SanitationWorkers

The Peace of ‘the Lamb with the Lion’ (Oh say, can you see?). Happy not Leap Day #BlackenAsiaWithLove

The peace of the Lamb with the Lion (Oh say, can you see?)

There is no peace between the lamb and the lion.

The lion will always feel hunger, and feast, nurture cubs, and prosper on lamb.

This becomes the lion’s nature.

The lion may grow greedy on the ease of his feed.

Wallowing on his back in the sun, him belly full o’ greed.

For the lion, none of this is the slaughter of the lambs.

🎵Them belly full but we HUNgry.

Black people were born into the American caste system hangry

White people, on the flip side, were granted freedom to feed themselves, and

Gain capital if they agreed to cooperate – actively or passively -with the system of hate.

Many men did, many were coerced with the promises and benefits and power of whiteness.

Hunger and anger easily fester into animality, hell and hate – none of which leads to liberation. If we were determined to be free, merely mastering the masters’ tools could not be our fate. We have had to craft a culture of resistance… based on love. This is the antithesis of the Greed, Anger and Stupidity that fuels hate. In our resistance, we have forged the ‘strength to love’ ourselves, in spite of the ‘birth of the nation’. Humanists of all hues always find a way.

Early that winter after Emmett Till was executed and his Mississippi killers acquitted, the radical Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to continue to go along with riding Jim Crow in Alabama, and in so doing gave Dr. King his final cue. Down one summer from up north, apparently young Till had made some form of pass at a white woman in a shop in town. He crossed Jim Crow, for which he had to be promptly sacrificed. 

Apparently, Mamie Till had sent out a powerful signal that summer by leaving the casket open for all to view her son’s dehumanized corpse – an honor killing, quite scripted and business as usual by that point in our nation’s still hopeful nascent democracy. Ms. Till resisted. She’d crossed a line by balling her fist, then pointing her accusing finger squarely at Jim Crow – that’s who’d snatched, brutally tortured, mutilated and murdered her boy. The lions had fed. “Dar he,” Till’s uncle, Moses Wright, said standing in court, pointing to the men who’d dragged the boy from his house, never to be seen alive again. They could no longer cooperate with a corrupt and deadly system.

Reading Rosa Parks’ cue, King rallied his congregation, and 

Agitated the local community, and

Called for a boycott, 

Not a storming of the state capital, which still sits just a stone’s throw from his church.

Teach-ins, sit-ins, rallies and marches followed.

They called them rioters-n-things just they do today.

Roaring, shouting, chanting, singing: We! Shall! Overcome (period).

They were met with guns and bayonets on bridges,

At schools, white parents mobbed Black children trying to make their way.

Now, Miss Betsy pays for her kids to go to private schools and ignores the public ones.

We were singing the blues for Mister Charlie.

This blues train was a just stop along long revolutionary tracks that have deep underground roots.

We’re talking ‘bout a revolution!

Bayard Rustin taught Martin Luther King the power and techniques of non-violent civil resistance. By 1959, MLK had assumed the rhetoric and role of Fredrick Douglas, and began

fellowshipping with Dalits while studying how Gandhi-ji had spearheaded a non-violent imperial defeat, which decolonized, yet ultimately, further splintered the sub-continent. Such solidarity still stands between oppressed and progressive peoples everywhere.

King’s call to conscience and action grew…the lambs bellowed out for solidarity.

King’s movement joined hands with people of all races, religions, all faiths, and 

They marched arm-n-arm with the humanists among sinners, senators, students and sanitary workers, and 

Gave the president the language of emancipation, and

Then Dr. King advocated against war,

Just as poor and Black soldiers were being disproportionately deployed to die on the front line.

They say that’s what got him shot-n-killed to death…

A casualty among many.

There are people around the world today singing “

GAS fuels hate!

This is why we can’t wait!

Progressives peacefully demonstrate to affirm our shared belief in humanism,

In spite our CONstitution’s original ill-fate.

Love is the true heart of patriotism.

Peace is what our actions illustrate.

So, get up and sing your blues today because #BLM:

🎵Get up! Stand-up!/Stand-up for your rights!/Get up! stand up!/Don’t give up the fight! [repeat infinitely]

MLK: In his day-n-this day in 2021. #BlackedAsiaWithLove

In his day, they called Martin Luther King a thug. They said that he was disturbing the peace. They accused him of sedition, and jailed him on any charge they could find. The got him on any perceivable and inconceivable traffic violation. Mostly, the only charges they could find were loitering or disobeying a police order – do what I say, niggra! They convicted him to a 4-month sentence for a sit-in. They fined him and anyone in the movement for anything. You can’t imagine the trial/fiasco around his arrest for leading a bus boycott. 

Sending his kids to school, peacefully.

Attending a comrade’s trial, peacefully. Loitering, peacefully. Sitting-in, peacefully. Driving, peacefully. Marching, peacefully. Preaching in the pulpit about the Prince of Peace, peacefully. Harassed, taunted, goaded, surveilled, bullied, bashed, arrested, convicted, abused by the police and their brethren among politicos – violently. Dear reader, please don’t find me pedantic by pointing out that this all sounds like 2020.

Here’s Dr. King’s full arrest record. He never once incited riots, yet they called him a thug. He never once missed an opportunity to call for calm, yet they said he was a looter. They made him a repeat offender, notoriously flaunting the law. Who was notoriously flaunting the law? The same sorts of folks who flaunted the law on January 6, 2021!

MLK grew up in the tradition of Black Liberation Theology, radically different from the individualist salvation and racism preached in white churches. King began to address this in a letter to white clergy, he wrote from a jail cell in bloody Birmingham. The pen is indeed mightier than the…cowardice of mobs and bombs.

Follow the drinking gourd

Dr. King understood that resistance is in our blood as strongly as the will to survive. Even with all of the stories I’ve heard from my elders, I still can’t imagine what it was like, even for my grandparents growing up picking cotton deep in the Jim Crow south. Yet, they resisted. And while I am sure that they feared white people their whole lives, they refused to study hate on them. Growing up, my grandparents had few choices in how they dealt with their white masters. Yet, they resisted hate. The roots of non-violence runs deep in our culture.

The roots of non-violent protest runs deep in American culture, but particularly so in terms of righting the legacy of our nation’s original sin: Slavery. In 1892, Homer Plessy was arrested for sitting in the white section of a street car in New Orleans. Four years later, the US Supreme Court upheld states’ right to segregate by race. This solidified Jim Crow at the highest court, and gave way to a host of racial segregation laws, policies and everyday practices that means virtually every aspect of life was unequal. This is the world into which Dr. King was born. 

Culminating nearly a century after the Civil War the Civil Rights Movement worked to address the legacy of Slavery. It took that long, so dear reader, please do imagine a century of Jim Crow. Emancipation, then that. 

Dr. King, Bayard Rustin and plenty, plenty others in their crew were repeatedly jailed and dismissed as agitators. Now, how many poor people sit in jail because in the New Jim Crow, they can’t afford the fines and fees, that means you pay for your own bondage. This is where your taxes go. Violence won’t solve this problem, but they won’t listen when you take a knee. They call you an agitator.

We chose the BALLOT they chose the BULLET

Dr. King used all his power to negotiate reconciliation, peacefully, yet he was gunned down and murdered, violently. Now, they advocate for their right to bear arms, knowing they’ve always been spurred to arm themselves in order to squash us (and not their own masters). They traded in whips and chains for guns and jails upon Emancipation. Now, their descendants are so twisted and confused about it that they claim not to know that’s also our blood shed and the Rebel flag, not just theirs. They still don’t get it. They are threatened by inclusion, perhaps fearing their own mediocracy, so they’d rather build a wall. In 2021, they were finally able to wave the Confederate Battle Flag in the halls of the US Capitol.

Their people fought and died for the independent right to bond and enslave us, yet now they speak of Dr. King like he’s some poster child for kneeling and praying for forgiveness in response to any atrocity they commit (even that kid who staged a massacre in a Black church was taken into custody, peacefully). Now, the same people call Dr. King a national hero in the same breath used to denounce those peacefully protesting for equity and justice today. For them, Black Lives do not Matter.

My new year nightmare: finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy

“Pregnant and homeless” by Ed Yourdon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; “Cash” by BlatantWorld.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The new year is here.  At its last knockings, the previous year offered hope of some sort of return to normality.  The second new vaccine was on its way, far easier to store and distribute, it offered hope. Unfortunately, the joy of the new year has been somewhat muted as we have witnessed Covid-19 cases rise to new heights. Talks of stricter measures have turned into our new reality, as one minute the government insisted on schools opening then the next a partial U-turn before a forced full-scale retreat. But as we watch all of this unfold, I am reminded of a comment I heard from a radio presenter on the lead up to Christmas. Her view was that there was much to be happy about, we know more about the virus now than we ever did and scientists have developed a vaccine, several vaccines, in record time.  Over the Christmas and new year period I reflected on last year and tried to think about what we have learnt. 

Brexit has just proved to be a complete farce.  Promises of a good deal turn out to be not so good, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ the politicians said.  And then in desperation, realising that any deal was better than no deal and that the best deal was the one where we were in the European Union they settled on something and thanked the gods that there was far more pressing bad news to hide their incompetence.  So, we are now a ‘sovereign’ nation but poorer to boot and whilst we think we have regained control over our borders, it is only limited to bureaucratic, time consuming form filling, as we beg people to come here to work in our care homes and on the farms for a pittance.  Perhaps the refugees that we have reluctantly accepted might help us out here. Brexit has been delivered but at what cost?  No wonder Stanley wants to take up his opportunity for a French passport.

We are all equal its just that some are far more equal than others. We saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and I have a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to do that discussion justice; I’ll leave that to others that are far more capable. It did have a profound impact on me though as a former serving police officer, I would like to think it had an impact on others both retired and serving, but I’m not so sure.  I think that quite often the police are simply a reflection of our society and I’m not willing to bet much on that changing rapidly.  I remember Michael Holding, a former West Indian cricketer, turned commentator, talking about ‘white privilege’ and he provided what I thought at the time was a good example. Now I’m not so sure, this so called ‘white privilege’, isn’t privilege at all, it’s rights. It’s the rights that white people avail themselves of everyday in a democratic society (well that’s what we are supposed to be in anyway) without a second thought.  The problem isn’t that white people have those rights, it’s that Black and ethnic minority individuals don’t, or where they do, the rights are somehow conditional.  I might be wrong in my thinking, but I know one thing, without some very clear leadership from government, institutions and general societal attitudes are unlikely to change sufficiently.  Although footballers and staff take a knee before every match, I fear that the momentum is likely to be lost.  By the way, I’m not holding out much hope on the leadership gambit.

Sticking to the we are all equal theme; the pandemic has shone a spotlight on poverty in this country.  Yes, Mr high and mighty Reece-Mogg, there really are very poor people in this country and they do need a helping hand. The fact that food banks are even required is shameful. The fact that foodbanks rely on charity is an even more shameful indictment of our government. The fact that a senior politician can stand up in the house of commons and accuse a charity of political motives when distributing aid beggar’s belief.  I find it extraordinary that pre pandemic, homeless people were left to their own devices on the streets, reliant on charity and handouts and yet as soon as we went into lockdown, the government found money from somewhere to house them.  What changed? My worry is that when the pandemic is over, the government are going to be more concerned about balancing the books than they are about the pervasive poverty endemic in our nation.

Children returning to school has been a huge issue for government and they rely on evidence that suggests that the best place for children is at school. A headmaster reminded us in an interview on the radio that this ‘online learning’ phrase that trips off the tongue is far easier to talk about than to achieve. What hits home is the huge disparity in opportunity for children to avail themselves of online learning. Poorer families cannot provide the technology required. Poorer families are likely to live in cramped conditions making it impossible for children to concentrate on work as siblings run around trying to keep themselves amused. And let’s not forget the plight of the parents who are more likely to be in jobs that require them to be at work, not home. Then of course there are those children that are vulnerable where school is a safe haven from abuse, whether that’s physical or mental or simply because school is where they will be fed. So, in a sense for many, school is a better place than home, but we really ought to be asking why that is. What does that say about our society? If I were to hazard an educated guess, I’d say its broken. The return of children to school had wider implications. What about the teachers and staff? It seems to me that government have different standards of risk depending on what suits. I’ll come back to this in time but I think the closure of schools owes itself more to the action of teachers in their refusal to turn up to work in an unsafe environment than it does any sensible government strategy.

Sticking to the education theme, the pandemic shone a rather harsh spotlight on higher education too. What became increasingly obvious was that the return of students to campus was purely financially driven.  At least one vice chancellor put his head above the parapet and stated as much.  His university would fail if he did not fill the halls of residence. So here we had a situation where scientific advisors were stating it was folly to open universities and yet universities did so with the backing of government. The reason, we can’t put education on hold and yet how many students take a gap year, before going to university? Putting education on hold doesn’t appear to be that damaging to the individual, but it is very damaging to a morally corrupt educational business model that needs halls of residence to be filled to prop up the system. To make matters worse, students flocked to university only to find that face to face teaching was patchy, the university experience was not what they were promised or envisaged it would be, and more time was spent in isolation and lock down than was healthy.  If education was supposed to be good for their mental health, it had the opposite effect for many.  I don’t think it required a rocket scientist to work out that online teaching was really going to be a default position, so either management and government were very naïve and reckless, or they were somewhat economical with the truth.   Time to revisit higher education, I think.

Talking about government advisors, what’s the point in having them? Everything I read suggests that government advisors say one thing and government does something else or dillies and dallies its way into a dead end where it finally admits the advisors are in some way right, hence another eleventh hour lock down. The advisor’s said universities should not go back, they did and is it coincidence it coincided with a rise in Covid-19 cases? Advisors were saying schools shouldn’t go back but the government insisted they should and many did for just one day.  There is a saying about tactics and strategy. Strategy is unlikely to be achieved without tactics but tactics without a strategy are useless. I have yet to understand what the government strategy is, there is however a plethora of disparate (or is that desperate?) tactics . The result though, anguish and suffering to more than is necessary.  Some of the tactics seem to be based on decision regarding who is most at risk.  We hear that term an awful lot.  I watched the prime minister at lunch time, the man who promised us a fantastic Brexit deal, as he explained how important it was that children went back to school.  Children are at very little risk going to school he said and then added, and teachers are not at very much risk or at least at no more risk than they would be normally.  He bumbled and blustered over the latter part; I wonder why?  A few hours later he told us schools would be closed until at least the 15th February. What happened to ‘no risk’? When we talk about risk, there are a number of ways of viewing it.   There is the risk of death, easily understood and most definitely to be avoided, but what seems to be neglected is the risk of serious illness or the risk of ‘long Covid’.  By ordering schools to be opened or that universities resume face to face teaching, the policy seems to have been that as long as you are not at a high risk of death then it is an acceptable risk.  Time for a bit of honesty here.  Does the government and do managers in these organisations really think that a group of people in a room for a number of hours with inadequate ventilation is not a serious risk to the spreading of the disease? Maybe some of the managers could reassure us by doing most of the face to face teaching when we prematurely come out of lock down again.

It seems to me that much is being made, on the news in particular, about the effect a lock down has on mental health, especially children. And I do understand the mental health issues, I can’t help but think though that whilst this is a very valid argument there is the elephant in the room that is either ignored or conveniently understated. The elephant; the fear engendered by the virus, the fear and anguish of those that have had to face the loss of a loved one. Just to put that in perspective that’s over 70,000 people whose families and friends have had to go through firstly the fear and anxiety of a loved one being ill and then the additional fear and anxiety of having lost them. Add to this the fear and anxiety of those that have caught the virus and ended up in hospital coupled with the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. Now add to this the fear and anxiety of those who have to work in conditions where they are at serious risk of catching Covid and the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. And then of course there is the fear and anxiety caused to the general population as the virus spins out of control. Somehow I think a little perspective on mental health during lock down might be needed. Is it any wonder teachers decided that what they were being asked to do was unsafe and unnecessary?

And then I think about all of those parties and gatherings despite restrictions. The shopping trips from tier 4 areas into tier two areas to snap up bargains in the sales. The Christmas and New years eve parties that defy any logic other than pure self-indulgence. Just as we see all of those selfless people that work in organisations that care for others or keep the country running in some capacity, we see a significant number of selfish people who really don’t care about the harm they are causing and seem to be driven by hedonism and a lack of social values. Unfortunately, that accusation can also be aimed at some of the very people that should be setting an example, politicians.

We should of course be happy and full of hope. We have a new vaccine (that’s providing it still works on the mutated virus) and normality is around the corner, give or take a few months and a half decent vaccination strategy (that’s us done for).  A vaccine that was found in an extraordinary time period.  I wonder why a vaccine for Ebola wasn’t found so quickly?  I agree with my colleague @paulaabowles when she says we all must do better but more importantly I think its about time we held government to account, they really must do better.  After the second world war this country saw the birth of the NHS and the welfare state. What we need now is a return to the fundamental values that prompted the birth of those provisions. There are so many pressing needs and we really mustn’t allow them to be forgotten.  A strategy to tackle poverty might just ameliorate a raft of other ills in our society and the cost of tackling it might easily be mitigated by a reduction in demand in the NHS and many other public services.  I can but dream, but my reality envisages a nightmare world driven by finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy.

2020: A Year on “Plague Island”

Last year in this blog, I argued that 2019 had been a year of violence. My colleague, @5teveh provided a gentle riposte, noting that whilst things had not been that good, they were perhaps not as bad as I had indicated. Looking back at both entries it is clear that my thoughts were well-evidenced, but it is @5teveh‘s rebuttal that has proved most prescient in respect of what was to come….

The year started off on a positive, personally and professionally, when both @manosdaskalou and I were nominated for Changemaker Awards. Although beaten by some very tough competition, shortly before leaving campus we were both awarded High Sheriff Awards, alongside our prison colleagues, for our module CRI3006 Beyond Justice. As colleagues and students will know, this module is taught entirely in prison to year 3 criminology students and their incarcerated peers. Unfortunately, the awards took place in the last week on campus, but we are hopeful that we can continue to work together in the near future.

Understandably much of our attention this year has been on Covid-19 and the changes it has wrought on individuals, communities, society and globally. Throughout this year, the Thoughts from the Criminology Team have documented the pandemic in a variety of different ways. From my very early thoughts, written in the panic of abandoning campus for the experience of lockdown to entries from @helentrinder @treventoursu @jesjames50 @cherylgardner2015 @5teveh @manosdaskalou @anfieldbhoy @samc0812 @drkukustr8talk @zeechee @saffrongarside @svr2727 @haleysread The blog has explored Covid-19 from a variety of different angles reflecting on the unprecedented experience of living through a pandemic. It is interesting to see how the situation and our understanding and responses have adapted over the past 9 months.

Alongside the serious materials, it was obvious very early on that we also needed to ensure some lightness for the team and our readers. With this in mind, early in the first lock down, we created the #CriminologyBookClub. We’re currently on our 8th novel and we’ve been highly critical of some of the texts ;), as well as fallen in love with others. However, I know I speak for my fellow members when I say this has offered some real respite for what’s going on around us.

Another early initiative was to invite all our bloggers to contribute an entry entitled #MyFavouriteThings. We ended up with over twenty entries (which you’ll find via the link) from the criminology team, students, as well as a our regular and occasional contributors. Surprisingly we learnt a lot about each other and about ourselves. The process of something as basic as writing down your favourite things, proved to be highly cathartic.

Whilst supporting each other in our learning community, we also didn’t forget our friends and colleagues in prison. Although, the focus has rightly been on the NHS and carers, the pandemic has hit the prison communities very hard. Technology can solve some of the issues of loneliness, but to be locked in a small room, far away from family and friends creates additional problems. For the men and the staff, the last 9 months has brought challenges never seen before. Although, we could not teach the module, we did our best, along with colleagues in Geography and the Vice Chancellor @npetfo, to provide quizzes and competitions to help pass the hours.

In June, the world was shocked by the killing of George Floyd in the USA. For many of us, this death was one in a long line of horrific killings of Black men and women, whereby society generally turned a blind eye. However, in the middle of a pandemic, the killing of George Floyd meant that people could not turn away from what was playing on every screen and every platform. This lead to a resurgence of interest in Black Lives Matter and an outpouring of statements by individuals, organisations, institutions and the State.

For a week in June, the Thoughts from the Criminology Team muted all their social media to make space for the #AmplifyMelanatedVoices initiative from Alishia McCullough and Jessica Wilson This was a tiny gesture in the grand scheme of things but refocused the team’s attention on making sure there is a space for anyone who wants to contribute.

Whether this new found interest in Black Lives Matters and discussions around diversity, racism, decolonisation and disproportionality continue, remains to be seen. Hopefully, the killing of George Floyd, alongside the profound evidence of privilege and need made evident by the pandemic, has provided a catalyst for change. One thing is clear, everyone knows now, we can no longer hide, there are no more excuses and we all can and must do better.

This year some old faces left for pastures new and we welcomed some new colleagues to the Criminology Team. If you haven’t already, you can read about our new (or, in some cases, not so new) team members’ – @jesjames50 @haleysread and @amycortvriend – academic journeys to becoming Lecturers in Criminology.

Finally, looking back over the last 12 months, certain themes catch my eye. Some of these are obvious, the pandemic and Black Lives Matter have occupied a lot of our minds. The focus has often been on high profile individuals – Captain Tom Moore, Joe Wickes, Marcus Rashford – but has also shone on teams/organisations/institutions such as the NHS, carers, shop workers, delivery drivers, the scientists working on the vaccines, the list goes on. Everyone has played a part, even if that is just by staying at home and out of the way, leaving space for those with a frontline role to play. Upon reflection it is evident that the over-riding themes (and why @5teveh was right last year) are ones of kindness, of going the extra mile, of trying to listen to each other, of reaching out to each other, acknowledging unfairness and privileges, recognising the huge loss of life and the impact of illness and bereavement and trying to make things a little better for all. Hope has become the default setting for all of us, hope that the pandemic will be over, alongside hopes that we can build a better world with its passing. It has also become extremely clear that critical thinking is at a premium during a pandemic, with competing narratives, contradictory evidence and uncertainty, testing all of our ability to cope with change and respond with humility and humanity.

There is no doubt 2020 has been an unprecedented year and one that will stay with us for ever in the collective memory. Going into 2021 it’s important that we remember to consider the positives and keep trying to do better. Hopefully, in 2021 we will get to celebrate Criminology’s 21st Birthday together

Remember to stay safe, strong and well and look out for yourself and others.

My MAGA #BlackAsiaWithLove

Back in 2007-8, I didn’t spend too much time watching the build-up to the presidential election. Until then, all I knew about America was that we’d yet to atone for our original sins: Enslaving one group of people, annihilating another, while lying and bragging about freedom, justice and liberty for all. Naw, America hadn’t never been great in any way I’d like to try again. My America had never been that, so nothing about 2008 betrayed that notion, even Obama’s candidacy.

Flash fast forward to a year later, for once in my life, America was finally great. This isn’t to suggest that America had suddenly become great, but electing and inaugurating Obama was a sure flash of greatness, a threshold that we’d crossed which distinguished us from the entire history of the nation hitherto. This is why the world celebrated the Obama candidacy – distinct from his actual presidency –the will to break from the white supremacist pattern of our original sins.

My MAGA Day 1:

There weren’t massive protests against president Obama on his very first day. Nay, his successful campaign was lauded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Flash further forward to now, and we have a president who picks with his allies, bullies his party members, dismisses people of color, chides poor people, taunts the media, teases any woman in his presence. We can’t call any of this ‘character’…unless it’s preceded by a bunch of bad adjectives, like his favorite for a non-compliant woman, “nasty.”

During Obama’s 8-year presidency, when it came to addressing ‘the people’, I could see that our leader was demonstrating what it meant to MAGA. He was capable of nuance even in cultural timebombs! When a white cop arrested an upstanding Black professor on his own porch, Obama invited them both over to the White House for a beer, and ostensibly to signal the need for racial reconciliation in critical justice in general, and, in particular, in Black folks’ dealings with the police. Later, when a Black teen was murdered by a rent-a-cop, Obama wept, and lamented that that could have been his son. ‘They’ chided him for racializing the issue. ‘They’ never see patterns, so entrenched are they in the myth of their own individuality.

Throughout Agent Orange’s presidency, when we being gunned down repeatedly by cops -in our own homes, out jogging, playing in the park, driving down the street, shopping at Walmart – 45 remained silent… that is until we took a knee. Back then, circa 2016, he and his klan caught all hell fire. When we started more openly defying white supremacy, ‘they’ had our names in their mouths like liquor. They ain’t had nothing to say about the value of Black life until that undeniable 8 minutes of 46 seconds of the symbolic hooves on our necks! Some say that was the breaking point.

Flash forward to today: Agent Orange may have to be carried out of the White House – in cuff hopefully – as he refuses to concede. What’s more, the nation has elected our second Catholic president, and our first women of color as vice president, and she’s the child of immigrants, too. Has America woken up from that sad slumber?

Witches and warlocks

Time and time again we revisit previous times of our lives, especially when trying to come to terms with unprecedented realities.  Society works with precedent and continuity that allows people to negotiate their own individual identities.  We live in a society that fostered the culture of the one, and played down the importance of the collective, especially when people in positions of power declared that they can do more with less. 

One pandemic later, and we clapped at the heroes those we regarded as needy money-grabbers previously, those we acknowledge now, that we previously cast aside as low skilled workers.  One pandemic later, and social movements came to prominence, asking big questions about the criminal justice system and the way it interacts with those numerous people, that are not perceived as “mainstream”.  Across Western countries, people are registering the way the system is operating to maintain social order, through social injustice.  Each case that appears in the news is not an individual story as before, but are becoming evidence of something wider, systemic and institutional. 

Covid-19 affects people, and so we must maintain social distancing, cover our faces and clean our hands.  Clear advice from WHO about the pandemic, but people also die when they drown as refugees crossing troubled waters.  People also die when someone puts a knee on their throat (who knew?), people die when they have to deal with abject poverty and have no means to cover their basic subsistence.  People die, and we record their deaths but officially some of those are normalised to the point that they become expected.  Every year I pose the question about good and evil to a group of young adults who seem uncertain about the answer.   

I was recently reminded of a statement made a long time ago by Manos Xatzidakis in relation to the normalisation of evil: “If you are not afraid of the face of evil it means that you have become accustomed to it.  Then you accept the horror and you are frightened by beauty”.  When we are expecting death for seemingly preventable causes, we have crossed that Rubicon according to Xatzidakis. 

As a kid, one of my favourite stories was Hansel and Gretel.  Like all fairy-tales it has a moral signature and is a cautionary lesson.  In my mind it contracted the first image of evil, that of a witch.  The illustration made it very real, but also quite specific.  An oversized, badly dressed witch, with an unsatisfiable taste for children’s flesh.  It was the embodiment of true evil.  In later years, reading The Witches by Roald Dahl exacerbated the fear of this creature, seemingly normal but with layers of ugly under their skin.  The evil that was on the face of the beholder, their intentions clear and their behaviour manipulative but clear on their objectives.  This, I learn as an adult, is an evil that only exists in stories. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrjLNpfDTi0

This kind of witch, is a demonstration of the social vilification of women and especially those who actively try to challenge the status quo, but not the evil that runs in our societies.  The construction of social demons is a convenient invention to evoke fears and maintain order; well that is something a sceptic may say…but social scientists ought to question everything and be a bit of a sceptic.  In my version of the fairytale the wicked witch is pushed into the oven by Hansel and Gretel, the image of her oversized bottom sticking out, whilst the rest of her body is consumed by the flames. 

Admittedly, I was too old to get into the Harry Potter genre and read the books but the image of his opposition made it to popular culture. The “He who cannot be named” became another convenient, albeit complex, evil capable of unspeakable evils. An icon in its own right of the corruptive nature of evil.

 The reality of course is slightly different.  The big evils do not get extinguished with flames or other means.  They do not cease and there is not necessarily happy ever after; social injustice and unfairness is continuous and so is the struggle to fight them.  The victories are not complete, but gradual and small.  If the pandemic shows us something other than death and heartache, it is the brittleness of life and the need to ask for more in a society that is geared to prime individualism over social solidarity.  It is perhaps a good time, for those who never did, to engage with social movements, for those who left them to return and all find their passion of sharing human experience, that is predicated on equality and fairness.

Fairytales, are interesting insomuch of giving us some moral direction but they do not help us to understand the wider social issues and the actions people have to take. The witches out there may not carry brooms and mix spells in cauldrons but evil carries indifference, apathy and lack of empathy. As Edmund Burke said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”, now that is true evil. After all, is there such a thing called evil or are we content with finding easy answers?

  

We are Spartacus: the publishing industry and race

As one of only a handful of non-white authors on the British crime fiction map, I thought it might be worthwhile spending a moment reflecting on the worldwide rebalancing touched off by the George Floyd killing in America. Fear not. There’s no need to put on your tin hats and dive for the trenches. My purpose isn’t to haul anyone over the coals. But there’s little doubt that some of what I say might make for uncomfortable reading. More importantly, I will ask you to reflect, at a personal level, on what we mean by systemic inequality, particularly as it applies to the publishing industry.

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First, some background. My parents are from the subcontinent. They came to the UK in the early seventies, lured by the immigrant dream. The streets of London may not have been paved with gold, but they were paved with opportunity. My father, who was not literate, spent his life in honest labour, in an industrial bakery, while my mother raised children, demonstrating the much-lauded immigrant work ethic by slaving away at her sewing machine every hour she wasn’t feeding us or stopping us from poking each other’s eyes out with eraser-tipped pencils. She instilled in us the need, above all else, to study, to educate ourselves, to progress.

So far, so good.

But what if I were to tell you that my parents were, in a broad sense, xenophobes, too? Not overtly. They didn’t oppress anyone; or traffic slaves across the oceans; or pillage defenceless communities for profit. But their attitude towards black people – cultivated by the insular world they had grown up in – was, at best, indifferent, or, at worst, mistrustful.

Here’s a simple, unpalatable truth. Racism, in its most basic form, is a feature of most societies. It shouldn’t be. But it is. A simple example illustrates my point.

The outpouring of angst and handwringing currently gripping the world has seen celebrities across the globe express their views on racism (rightly so), only for some to discover that a seat on this particular bandwagon can be an uncomfortable one. In India, numerous Bollywood stars were called out for the disparity between their #blacklivesmatter tweets and the fact that they had fronted campaigns for skin-lightening creams. Across the subcontinent, lighter skin has traditionally been valued (usually alluded to in matrimonial ads by the rainbow-bending adjective “wheatish”), so much so that white foreigners, especially Brits, are treated with overt deference, while black people are routinely afforded a lesser welcome. An odd perversity, given that it was the whites that pillaged the subcontinent for three centuries while, with those of Afro-Caribbean descent, one might assume Indians would evince a colonial-era solidarity.

Let me be clear: this idea of a sort of universal xenophobic instinct does not in any way excuse or mitigate the horrors of the slave trade, or the enormous, long-term damage done to black people because of that terrible practice. Nor does it justify the entrenched, systemic prejudice that continues to colour western societies, prejudice that culminates in overt racism of the kind that permits white American policemen to routinely kill black men with little fear of reprisal, and prejudice of the less obvious kind that serves to keep black people ‘in their place’. My point was merely to demonstrate that, in the wider, global race equality agenda now under discussion, we all have a part to play.

Part of the issue is that many well-meaning efforts to redress the balance are hampered by a profound lack of insight into how unconscious bias can affect the lives of people of colour, in a million different, small, but, ultimately, debilitating ways. The problem is further hampered by an education system that often fails to properly tackle the ‘race issue’.

Yet, the problem must be addressed. Because the world has become a smaller place. The goldfish bowl has shrunk and we are now all swimming in the same seas. It behoves us to make the effort, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is also the most effective means of progressing humanity towards a more equitable, more meritocratic, global society. If the Covid-19 pandemic has proven anything, it is how interdependent we are.

Coming, now, to the publishing industry. Cards on the table. Since my first book was published six years ago, I have received tremendous support from my agent, publisher, critics, bloggers, readers, event organisers, and crime writers. My experience is not typical. A simple look at the statistics tells us what we already know. Any way you slice it and dice it – diversity of publishing staff, published writers of colour, books featuring characters of colour – the industry is dominated by white thought and enterprise. Some of this can be ascribed to the fact that, in terms of population, BAME communities, by definition, are a minority. You wouldn’t expect there to be a 50:50 split along these dimensions. That isn’t the issue. The problem is the entrenched attitudes that make it so damned difficult for writers of colour to break into the industry and then to enjoy the same rewards and freedom of expression that is accorded to their white counterparts.

The world’s most successful crime writer, James Patterson, became famous with a series about a streetwise black detective, Alex Cross. James Patterson is not black. Nothing wrong with that scenario, in my opinion. Authors should not be constrained by artificial constructions of propriety. But, if the industry is being honest with itself, it will acknowledge that a writer of colour attempting to do something similar – trying, as it were, to write outside of their cultural straightjacket – is rarely accorded the same privilege. Questions of ‘authenticity’, ‘voice’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ suddenly come racing to the fore, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters questioning our right to go to the ball. Asian writers, for instance, are often expected to pen literary tomes about colonialism or exposes of the immigrant experience. Again, nothing wrong with that, and, indeed, brilliant writing is regularly published exploring those themes. But there are so many other stories that we would like to tell. White writers can be published writing about matters far outside their experience – wizards, serial killers, aliens. But for non-white writers, the same consideration is much harder to find. A lot of this is not the result of overt racism, but rather the mindset that accepts as perceived wisdom the idea that profitability comes almost entirely from white authors writing white stories, or writers of colour writing stories suited to their ethnic background. This thought is so prevalent in the industry that it may as well be an eleventh commandment.

A terrific article by Laura B. McGrath, associate director of the Stanford University Literary Lab, in a Jan 2019 issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books, entitled “Comping White” identifies the true nature of the problem. Paraphrasing her research, it goes like this: publishers buy new books by comparing them to books that have been successful. Is this the new Harry Potter? Is this the next Gone Girl? Given that the majority of books are white, the process becomes a closed loop, a vicious cycle. The industry buys and promotes white books because they sell. White books sell because they’re the only books the industry buys and promotes. Do you see the problem?

Making the gatekeepers more diverse, McGrath argues, will have only a marginal impact. It’s the system that’s at fault. The same applies to practically any walk of life that you might care to name – hence the reason so few people of colour in boardrooms, or lecturing at top universities, or opening Michelin-starred restaurants. White people have done all those things successfully before, so why take a chance on the unproven?

Until we change this structural, often unconscious, bias, all the current furore around race will do little to improve the prospects of the average BAME person.

Can readers help? Of course! By voting with their feet. By buying books written by authors of colour, readers signal to publishers that they won’t be put off by a ‘funny-sounding’ name on the cover, or a protagonist who doesn’t share their own cultural background. The only bar should be quality.

In an ideal world, a good story, well told, should stand on its own merits.

What else can we do? In my opinion, people shape people. If we want better, more thoughtful attitudes in the industry, we must all stand up and be counted. Solidarity is the name of the game. A solidarity of thought that acknowledges that a genuine change of perspective is needed. From agent to reader, all along the chain. What we need, in other words, is for all of us to stand up and say: ‘We are Spartacus.’

Vaseem Khan, author, Midnight at Malabar House and Baby Ganesh series

London, June 2020

CONned by CONfederates #BlackenAsiaWithLove

I come from a town named after the French king who supported America’s independence struggle from Great Britain. A large statue of him sits in front of our old courthouse, across from the old town hall. The fleur-de-lis covering his robe was consequently adopted as the symbol of my city, as well as New Orleans and several other municipalities around our nation. I am from a county named after a slaveholding ‘founding father’, the nation’s third president, who was the governor of the Virginia territory that was split then to eventually create my ole Kentucky home.

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Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence at the same time as he was a prominent slave-owner. Our nation fought for nearly two centuries to (openly) recognize the long-term relationship Jefferson had with a teenage slave. Contemporary CONfederates & other zealots fought against recognizing their descendants.

Dixie Highway is one of the largest roads crisscrossing my city, and it’s even the best way to get to Fort Knox, where our nation used to hold its gold. There are other CONfederate activists who are venerated locally in bronze. I never had to “wish I was in Dixie.”I was born there.

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Rosa Parks statue in downtown Montgomery, AL

Although the Sons of CONfederate Veterans resisted, my parents’ alma mater moved a 70-foot-tall CONfederate monument off its campus and out of the city. It wasn’t destroyed, but perhaps, hopefully, better contextualized.

There are umpteen items in my hometown named after President Zachary Taylor who was born into a prominent plantation-owning family. He held slaves during his short-lived term and danced all around the issue of slavery with his CONfederate chums.

Where my grandparents are from in Alabama, the Black high school is named after a CONfederate war general. Right now, the first white house of the CONfederacy sits smack in the middle of the seat of city, county, and state government.

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“First White House of the Confederacy,” Montgomery, AL 2013.

History needs to be re-written to include all the people that made the history.

Ignorance is bliss: the problem with education

I woke up this morning with a feeling of the weight of the world on my shoulders. My problems are insignificant compared to many others, but I did think, wouldn’t it be nice to get off this merry-go-round. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could stop thinking about the injustices in the world and the part I play in them, how the problems might be solved, how best I can do my job online and give all of my students what they need, how best I can deal with tricky relationships at work and do my best for all concerned How I might ensure that my family are looked after and take on significant responsibilities in looking after the interests of an elderly relative whilst ensuring fairness all round. How can I do the right thing and not send myself into bouts of depression?

And as I thought of all of these things I came to an interesting question.  Is it better to be ignorant, inept and irresponsible?

If I was ignorant, if I didn’t bother to watch the news, to critique, to engage in discussion, to think about the social world and my place in it. If I was to carry on in blissful ignorance of what is going on around me would I not be happier? If I am not aware of social injustices, then it would be easy to take a stance that what matters is simple, law and order for instance.  I could become a Sun reader, more interested in the pictures than the content. The headlines would capture my imagine for a nano second and I could simply agree about how terrible this or that issue is before blissfully moving on to something else. I don’t know what everyone else is complaining about, I’m alright Jack, or should that be Jill, I must stop thinking.

If I was inept, I make a bit of an assumption here that I’m not, I guess others will judge, then that ineptitude would ensure that I wasn’t given any responsibilities, well none that really mattered. Cock things up a few times and suddenly you find that nobody wants to give you the work and nobody really wants to do any work to deal with your ineptitude, and nobody thanks them if they do.  In other words, you are ‘quids in’, minimal work and nobody on your back. Couple this with blissful ignorance and life is so much easier.

If I was irresponsible, or at least seen as that, then I wouldn’t be asked to take on responsibility and all of the ramifications that go with it. No longer asked to do something that is important and has significant ramifications if you cock it up. That takes us back to ineptitude, being inept leads to no responsibility, being irresponsible gives the appearance of being inept. If I am blissfully ignorant of what people might think of me or what I might have cocked up, then no need to worry.

The only fly in the ointment here, is that in being educated, I am able to write this blog. I am able to place myself in society and sadly acknowledge my part in it. I pride myself in doing a good job and I don’t shy away from responsibility although I might get there kicking and screaming at myself for the angst and inner turmoil it sometimes creates. Knowledge is powerful, education gives you knowledge and self-awareness. The greater the knowledge the greater the self-awareness, the greater the self-awareness, the greater the thirst for knowledge. Unfortunately, there is nothing blissful to be found there though.

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