July 23, 1967 Riot or Rebellion? How Today’s Political Crisis Began in Detroit

Detroit has stood at the center of a growing crisis in the United States tied to racial conflict, the collapse of the middle class, and political polarization. No city, argues historian Scott Kurashige, has come to embody the decline of middle-class economic security, the entrenchment of structural unemployment, and the burden of long-term debt more than Detroit. Kurashige — who is also an activist and author of The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit — worked closely with the legendary Grace Lee Boggs, a noted figure in Detroit’s Black Power movement, as well as many community organizations in Detroit. “When you think about Detroit’s 50-year crisis”, he says, “it really relates to the unresolved contradictions of 1967.”

On July 23, 1967, thousands took to the streets of Detroit to vent their long-standing frustrations with racism, police brutality, and vanishing job prospects. Mainstream observers called it a “riot,” contending that it brought about the ruin of a once-great city and stressed for repressive policing to restore law and order. As Kurashige points out in The Fifty-Year Rebellion, many others instead called it a “rebellion,” and advocated for social programs and investments to remedy racism and poverty:

They viewed it as an expression of black unity and a political declaration for their “fair share” of resources and power in the great city and nation… Regardless of opinion, when we look closely at the deadly violence that took place during the rebellion, one pattern stands out: the killing of African Americans by state actors.

Of the 43 who died, 33 were black and 30 were killed by law enforcement, as the streets of Detroit were covered by 17,000 Detroit cops, state police, National Guardsmen, and finally U.S. Army troops. Authorities had hoped initial outbreaks of violence would play themselves out. When they instead expanded into full-fledged rebellion, the police became the aggressors in one confrontation after another. “This is more than a riot,” said one police officer, reflecting the view of many peers. “This is war.”

In the following segment of The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann, Kurashige further clarifies the difference between the two terms, and why it’s an important distinction:

 

Challenging the conventional notion that “rioters” ruined a once-thriving city, The Fifty-Year Rebellion provides striking insights into the polarization of American society over the past half-century and how the struggle in Detroit will determine what type of political and economic system will emerge from the nation’s current crisis.

With a roster of key figures and their roles — from community activists such as James and Grace Lee Boggs to wealthy and private investors like Betsy DeVos and Dan Gilbert — the book shows that in the face of devastation and dispossession, visionary Detroit activists have organized a new model of a postindustrial city through the creation of urban farms, freedom schools, solidarity economics, and self-governing communities.

 


Listening for the Secret and the Summer of Love at the California Historical Society

On July 18th at 12 PM, meet author Ulf Olsson and series editor Nicholas Meriwether in San Francisco at the California Historical Society for a lunchtime conversation on Listening for the Secret: The Grateful Dead and the Politics of Improvisation, available now.

Listening for the Secret, the first volume in the new Studies in the Grateful Dead series, is a critical assessment of the Grateful Dead and the distinct culture that grew out of the group’s music, politics, and performance. Olsson places the music group within discourses of the political, specifically the band’s capacity to create a unique social environment, and examines the wider significance and impact of its politics of improvisation.

Studies in the Grateful Dead presents original monographs and edited anthologies by experts representing a range of disciplinary perspectives and fields that highlight the complexity, power, and enduring appeal of this protean, compelling musical and cultural phenomenon.

For more about Listening for the Secret and this upcoming event, see the author and editor’s article introducing the book on the Summer of Love 50th Anniversary website.

Additionally, learn more about the enduring culture and legacy of the Summer of Love by visiting On the Road to the Summer of Love at the California Historical Society (May 12, 2017 – September 10, 2017), as well as The Summer of Love Experience at the de Young Museum (April 8, 2017 – August 20, 2017).

Save 30% on The Summer of Love Experience catalogue, Summer of Love: Art, Fashion, and Rock and Rolland other great books on this moment in Bay Area history by checking out our Summer of Love required reading list and using the discount code 17W3224 on the UC Press website.


A Deepening Political Divide

By Ruth Braunstein, author of Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy across the Political Divide

The ascendance of Donald Trump to the presidency, and the groundswell of resistance that followed, revealed a rift in the American populace. Some have been shocked by the depth, rancor and seeming intractability of this divide. The election of President Obama (twice) was widely viewed as a sign of national healing. Through this lens, Obama’s hopeful words of solidarity and progress had been a balm on the wounds left by centuries of racial strife, religious disagreement, and ideological antagonism. Trump’s election tore those wounds open anew.

But the apparent disjuncture between Obama’s and Trump’s victories can be reconciled by recalling that America’s history has not been a steady march of progress; rather, it has been marked by a pattern of advances and retrenchment. The age of Lincoln was also the age of the Know-Nothings; FDR provoked a backlash from groups ranging from conservative business and religious leaders to the Klan; and Kennedy’s moment was also Wallace’s. If Obama’s election represented an expansion of the symbolic boundaries of American belonging, then Trump’s rise marked the relatively predictable return of reactionary politics to the national stage.

Yet we should not forget that the country was also deeply divided during the Obama era. The divisions of those years may appear quaint compared to those that have revealed themselves since Trump’s election. But they laid the groundwork for the situation in which we find ourselves today. I spent several years on the front lines of that political divide during the Obama years. In the wake of the Great Recession and amid growing discontent with government responsiveness to ordinary citizens, I began conducting ethnographic fieldwork with a progressive faith-based community organizing coalition and a local Tea Party group.

While attending their rallies, protests, public actions, meetings with legislators, town halls, hearings, and internal meetings, I documented the ways in which members of the two groups told very different stories about America’s past, present and future. The Tea Partiers were nostalgic about the past and worried that the country’s turn away from its Judeo-Christian heritage and Constitutional principles foretold apocalyptic decline. Meanwhile, the progressive community organizers were critical of the country’s past (and ongoing) failings, but cautiously optimistic about its capacity to become a “more perfect union” that lived up to its founding ideals. The stark differences between the two groups’ visions of America mirrored differences found among the broader public, as described in an American Values Survey in 2015, when asked when America was greatest, and during discussions about American identity).

These were not merely stories that members of the two groups told; they were scaffolding for the interpretive worlds in which they embedded themselves, and from within which they evaluated the credibility of authorities and information, the appropriateness of different styles of action, and the democratic legitimacy of other grassroots groups.

As we reflect on the current crisis in which Trump’s supporters and resistors cannot agree even on a set of shared facts, view one another as stupid and un-American, and appear to live within entirely different realities, these two groups’ experiences offer insight into how we reached this moment.

Complicating matters, however, I found that members of these groups did not tell entirely different stories of America; they told different versions of the same story.

Members of both groups embedded themselves in a historical narrative in which active citizens have repeatedly played a pivotal role in saving the American democratic project from ruin. Whether they framed the protagonists in this narrative as prophets or patriots (and yes, these differences were significant), they agreed it was ordinary citizens’ sacred duty to hold elites accountable and to project their voices, values, and knowledge into public debates about the issues that impacted their lives.

In this way, members of both groups embedded their action within a populist story: in which ordinary citizens are heroes and out-of-touch elites are villains; in which grassroots power is virtuous and elite control (of any kind) is suspect. The grassroots populism I found among these progressive community organizers and conservative Tea Partiers was a far cry from the authoritarian populism that is currently on display among Trump’s “forgotten men and women,” who turn out for worshipful rallies while doing nothing to hold the president accountable for his promises to represent their interests.

By keeping these Obama-era movements in view, it becomes clear that the political divide we are witnessing today is not new, nor is Americans’ turn toward populist politics. Yet the divide appears to have deepened, while the populism has become shallower.

The questions we might now ask are how a commitment to grassroots populism that transcended deep political divides gave way to the authoritarian populism we see today (particularly on the political right), and whether there is a path forward to a shared vision of America that calls upon ordinary citizens across the political divide to play an active role in building a common life.


Ruth Braunstein is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut.


Tools of the Trade: Resources for Social Scientists

As part of our “Tools of the Trade” blog series, we’re highlighting resources for social science scholars and educators to aid in your research, writing, and prep work this summer. Look no further for a refresher of methods that you can use in your own work or share with your students.

How to Think Critically

Critical Thinking: Tools for Evaluating Research by Peter Nardi

This book prepares readers to thoughtfully interpret information and develop a sophisticated understanding of our increasingly complex and multi-mediated world. Peter M. Nardi’s approach helps students sharpen critical thinking skills and improve analytical reasoning, enabling them to ward off gullibility, develop insightful skepticism, and ask the right questions about material online, in the mass media, or in scholarly publications. Students will learn to understand common errors in thinking; create reliable and valid research methodologies; understand social science concepts needed to make sense of popular and academic claims; and communicate, apply, and integrate the methods learned in both research and daily life.

Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data, Updated and Expanded by Joel Best

Are four million women really battered to death by their husbands or boyfriends each year? Is methamphetamine our number one drug problem today? Alarming statistics bombard our daily lives. But all too often, even the most respected publications present numbers that are miscalculated, misinterpreted, hyped, or simply misleading. This new edition contains revised benchmark statistics, updated resources, and a new section on the rhetorical uses of statistics, complete with new problems to be spotted and new examples illustrating those problems. Joel Best’s bestseller exposes questionable uses of statistics and guides the reader toward becoming a more critical, savvy consumer of news, information, and data. See also Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists, Updated Edition.

Methodology

Data Mining for the Social Sciences: An Introduction by Paul Attewell and David Monaghan

We live in a world of big data: the amount of information collected on human behavior is staggering, and exponentially greater than at any time in the past. Powerful algorithms can churn through seas of data to uncover patterns. This book discusses how data mining substantially differs from conventional statistical modeling. The authors empower social scientists to tap into these new resources and incorporate data mining methodologies in their analytical toolkits. This book demystifies the process by describing the diverse set of techniques available, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches, and giving practical demonstrations of how to carry out analyses using tools in various statistical software packages.

The Comparative Method: Moving Beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies, With a New Introduction by Charles C. Ragin

The Comparative Method proposes a synthetic strategy, based on an application of Boolean algebra, that combines the strengths of both qualitative and quantitative sociology. Elegantly accessible and germane to the work of all the social sciences, and now updated with a new introduction, this book will continue to garner interest, debate, and praise.

“While not everyone will agree, all will learn from this book. The result will be to intensify the dialogue between theory and evidence in comparative research, furthering a fruitful symbiosis of ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ methods.”—Theda Skocpol, Harvard University

Time Series Analysis in the Social Sciences: The Fundamentals by Youseop Shin

 This book is a practical and highly readable, focusing on fundamental elements of time series analysis that social scientists need to understand so they can employ time series analysis for their research and practice. Through step-by-step explanations and using monthly violent crime rates as case studies, this book explains univariate time series from the preliminary visual analysis through the modeling of seasonality, trends, and residuals, to the evaluation and prediction of estimated models. It also explains smoothing, multiple time series analysis, and interrupted time series analysis. With a wealth of practical advice and supplemental data sets, this flexible and friendly text is suitable for all students and scholars in the social sciences.

Regression Models for Categorical, Count, and Related Variables: An Applied Approach by John P. Hoffmann

Sociologists examining the likelihood of interracial marriage, political scientists studying voting behavior, and criminologists counting the number of offenses people commit are all interested in outcomes that are not continuous but must measure and analyze these events and phenomena in a discrete manner.

The book addresses logistic and probit models, including those designed for ordinal and nominal variables, regular and zero-inflated Poisson and negative binomial models, event history models, models for longitudinal data, multilevel models, and data reduction techniques.

A companion website includes downloadable versions of all the data sets used in the book.

Presenting Your Data

Principles of Data Management and Presentation by John P. Hoffmann

The world is saturated with data in words, tables, and graphics. Assuming only that students have some familiarity with basic statistics and research methods, this book provides a comprehensive set of principles for understanding and using data as part of a research, including:
• how to narrow a research topic to a specific research question
• how to access and organize data that are useful for answering a research question
• how to use software such as Stata, SPSS, and SAS to manage data
• how to present data so that they convey a clear and effective message

A companion website includes material to enhance the learning experience—specifically statistical software code and the datasets used in the examples, in text format as well as Stata, SPSS, and SAS formats.

 


Marketing a Queer San Francisco

adapted from Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 by Nan Alamilla Boyd


Each year at the end of June, San Francisco fills with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) tourists. The Castro Theater in San Francisco’s gay neighborhood screens a week-long lesbian-gay-themed film festival, the city flies multicolored gay pride flags from poles stretching the length of Market Street, and crowds of up to half a million gather for the annual Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade on the last Sunday in June.

June is a lucrative month for gay-owned businesses. Gay bars, restaurants, and hotels fill to capacity, and stores catering to gay tourists do a brisk trade in pride rings, necklaces, and T-shirts. While gay tourism is good for gay businesses, the revenue generated from gay tourism reaches beyond the GLBT community. Of the 4.2 million hotel guests who made San Francisco a destination in 1999, 4.6 percent dined in the Castro district at least once, bringing almost $10 million in revenue to the city in restaurant business alone.

As was the case in the postwar years, the ability of the GLBT community to draw tourist dollars to the city affects its strength in relation to city politics. In the 1940s and 1950s, San Francisco’s tourist economy gave gay bars a foothold in San Francisco’s North Beach district. Currently, as gay tourism draws millions of dollars to San Francisco each year, gay, lesbian, and transgender community representatives from San Francisco serve both elected and appointed positions within municipal, state, and federal government offices.

Today, large corporations with familiar brand names are eager to capitalize on gay dollars and gay spending power. While this phenomenon— niche marketing to gay and lesbian shoppers—promises to open up new modes of visibility (and presumed social acceptance), the large-scale and corporate commercialization of queer culture threatens to transfer the control of representations of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people from the hands of activists and community members to large corporations.

Along with homophile movement activism, the culture of gay, lesbian, and transgender bars and nightclubs contributed significantly to the form and function of a resistant queer social movement. In fact, in its prideful assertion of difference, bar culture transmitted the progressive idea of minority rights (or rights based in the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause) to the larger lesbian and gay movement for social change. Initially, gay and lesbian bar owners resisted prohibitions against serving a homosexual clientele simply to protect their livelihood— the quintessentially American “right to make a buck.”

However, as the harassment of gay and lesbian bars continued, bar owners shifted their strategy. Leaning on the Bill of Rights, lawyers representing the interests of bar owners, bartenders, and patrons argued that homosexuals should not be denied access to public accommodation. In this way, bar-based communities asserted their fundamental right to association and assembly. Because these arguments resonated with other minority-based civil rights campaigns, most notably the African American Civil Rights Movement, legal challenges to the harassment of gay and lesbian bars were successful in securing limited civil rights for queers.

In its fundamental differences from mainstream society, gay and lesbian culture was strong. It was the strength of difference and the historic projection of a unique sexual culture that enabled— and continues to enable—queer life in San Francisco to forcefully assert gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender civil rights.


Nan Alamilla Boyd is Professor of Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University. She is the author of Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 and co-editor of Bodies of Evidence, the Practice of Queer Oral History (Oxford, 2012).


Jailcare Launches at Potter’s House in Washington, D.C.

By Carolyn Sufrin, author of Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women behind Bars

Earlier this month, the book launch event for Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women behind Bars was held at The Potter’s House in Washington, D.C., a progressive non-profit bookstore and café with roots in social justice.

It was an apt community space to host a discussion of this book, which describes some of the everyday realities of mass incarceration in our country and how the failures of society to care for women on the margins have created a situation where jail has become an integral part of the safety net for these women.

I was fortunate to speak in front of a standing room-only, engaged audience from an array of backgrounds—health care providers, lawyers, activists, students, anthropologists and other researchers, as well as people from the Department of Justice, Planned Parenthood, local non-profits, and others.

Carolyn Sufrin (L) with Amy Fettig (R).

Amy Fettig, Deputy Director at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, moderated the event and shared an overview of incarceration and health care behind bars. Fettig herself has successfully litigated many cases to improve health care conditions for incarcerated people. After I read a few excerpts from Jailcare, Fettig asked questions that got to the heart of the nuances and contradictions of jailcare, such as how jail workers approach pregnant women as deserving—or not deserving—of care. This sparked a lively discussion about the paradoxes of the constitutional requirement that prisons and jails must provide health care.

A question from the audience built on this requirement, specifically the idea of keeping prisoners alive through health care with a probing reminder of the connections with slavery—“Once you become incarcerated you become property of the state. And then the system has a responsibility to keep you alive”—similar to plantation owners needing to keep their slaves alive to continue to exploit their labor.

The discussion also included some practical strategies for shifting the role of jail and incarceration in managing social problems. For example:

  • Comprehensive bail reform: filling jails with people who are not a safety or flight threat puts undue pressure on the system. The issue of people being held in jail for long periods of time because they cannot afford small bail amounts helped people recognize the role that poverty plays in incarceration.
  • Neighborly community interaction: An audience member suggested that we, as neighbors, rethink the reasons for why we call the police to come to our neighborhoods and consider alternative strategies that make the police more community members rather than those policing the community.
  • Helping the helpers: we discussed the importance of making social safety net services higher quality by trying to address staff burnout, thereby improving their investment and relationships they have with the people whom they are attempting to help.

Carolyn Sufrin is a medical anthropologist and an obstetrician-gynecologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Learn more about Jailcare at www.jailcare.org/.


A Paradigm Shift for Fathers

During Father’s Day, while some dads are woken from slumber by their kids bouncing on their beds, others are simply hoping to get a few short hours with their children.

The urban “deadbeat dad” or “absentee father” is considered a leading social problem today. They become fathers quickly (and usually unintentionally) and avoid parental responsibilities, including evading child support obligations. Stereotyped as irresponsible and immature, they are looked down upon by all walks of society.

But what we fail to recognize—and what The New York Times’ David Brooks writes about regarding why fathers leave their children, is that these fathers had every intention of being there for their children. Brooks writes, “in truth, when fathers abandon their own children, it’s not a momentary decision; it’s a long, tragic process.”

Brooks cites Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson’s research in Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Big City. Brooks says that “the so-called deadbeat dads want to succeed as fathers. Their goals and values point them in the right direction. … They need help finding the practical bridges to help them get where they want to go.”

Edin and Nelson write:

Perhaps a paradigm shift is in order. Imagine if America’s social institutions realigned so that men’s parenting efforts were treated as a resource with real potential value. If we truly believe in gender equity, then we must find a way to honor fathers’ attempts to build relationships with their children just as we do mothers’—to assign fathers rights along with their responsibilities. While some low-income fathers are violent or potentially harmful to their children, such problems are far from universal, and it is wrong to characterize a whole class of men in this way, particularly when we don’t do the same for middle-class, predominately white fathers.

Taking a bold new approach to unmarried fatherhood has risks, but it also has large potential payoffs.

Learn more about Edin and Nelson’s fieldwork that inspired Doing the Best I Can and find resources to help.


Remembering Those at Pulse in Orlando: One Year Later

Today, we remember the 49 people who lost their lives at Pulse Night Club in Orlando, FL. It is the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter; the deadliest terrorist attack since September 11, 2011; and the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in U.S. history.

Survivors and family members pay tribute to those in the community who were lost yet always remembered.

This day brings to light the discrimination and homophobia that those in the LGBTQ community experience, and how gun violence—and lack of gun sense—contribute to such tragedies.

Homophobia, sadly, begins early on. C.J. Pascoe, author of Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, notes in her Guest Viewpoint for The Register-Guard that homophobia is linked to our definition of  masculinity. Pascoe says that during her research, “[b]oys told me that homophobic epithets were directed at boys for exhibiting any sort of behavior defined as nonmasculine: being stupid, incompetent, dancing, caring too much about clothing, being too emotional or expressing interest (sexual or platonic) in other guys.”

And Pascoe notes in Dude, You’re a Fag that the “fag” insult “literally reduced a boy to nothing, “To call someone gay or fag is like the lowest thing you can call someone. Because that’s like saying that you’re nothing.”

Pascoe shares the story of Ricky, who “embodied the fag because of his homosexuality and his less normative gender identification and self-presentation.”

Even though dancing was the most important thing in his life, Ricky told me he didn’t attend school dances because he didn’t like to “watch my back” the whole time. Meanings of sexuality and masculinity were deeply embedded in dancing and high school dances. Several boys at the school told me that they wouldn’t even attend a dance if they knew Ricky was going to be there. In auto shop, Brad,a white sophomore, said, “I heard Ricky is going in a skirt. It’s a hella short one!” Chad responded, “I wouldn’t even go if he’s there.” Topping Chad’s response, Brad claimed, “I’d probably beat him up outside!” K.J. agreed: “He’d probably get jumped by a bunch of kids who don’t like him.” Chad said, “If I were a gay guy I wouldn’t go around telling everyone.” 

Pascoe later shares practical recommendations, focusing on schools to try and curtain homophobia in early settings. From ways administrators and teachers can take proactive steps to know about and enforce anti-discriminatory laws, modify the school’s curriculum and social organizations to be less homophobic, and reorganize highly gendered school rituals, Pascoe brings to the forth front ways we can help gay youth feel more included and be less preyed upon.

As both young Ricky and Pulse Night Club have shown us, homophobia is still a concern of life and death for many, even now. Despite the sadness that many feel today, we end on a note of hope, with the simple message that today is a day of love and kindness. #OrlandoUnitedDay

 


Why Jail Can Become a Safety Net for Pregnant Women

As discussions about reproductive justice and women’s rights as human rights continue, we mustn’t forget that these same rights should apply to pregnant women behind bars.

Carolyn Sufrin, author of Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women behind Bars, recently discussed how the repeal of the Affordable Care Act could negatively affect pregnant women in prison—many of whom are women of color and come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Despite a 1976 Supreme Court Case stating that prisons and jails are constitutionally mandated to provide health care to incarcerated persons, pregnant incarcerated women are still neglected and mistreated.

Many imprisoned women are in jail and prison for non-violent crimes, most times involving drugs. Most recently in an interview with Rewire, Sufrin states: “With the criminalization of drug use during pregnancy, although there was some recent encouraging news in Wisconsin, we have to be concerned that we’re going to see these laws and enforcement increase. Instead of investing in drug treatment and mental health treatment, women are going to be criminalized. The appointment of Jeff Sessions [Attorney General of the United States] and his commitment to roll back the progress of criminal justice system reform are deeply tied to the rollback on health-care reforms and reinvesting in safety net programs. It’s all tied together and only going to make things worse for women in the criminal justice system.”

In Jailcare, Sufrin writes:

Since the 1980s’ escalation of “the war on drugs,” the United States has seen an exponential rise in the number of people behind bars, from 501,886 in 1980 to 2,173,800 in 2015. The U. S. holds only 5 percent of the world’s population, but more than 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. We incarcerate more women than Russia, China, Thailand, and India combined. Blacks have been disproportionately targeted, imprisoned at a rate that is more than five times that of whites, a statistical fact which reflects the continuities between racist criminal justice system policies and plantation slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Amid this expansion, women are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. And yet incarcerated women and their health needs remain consistently excluded from public discussions of mass incarceration.

Numerous scholars have chronicled the rise of mass imprisonment, arguing that the phenomenon reflects not a response to a rise in violent crime, but the “penal treatment of poverty.” Put simply, where the state once had a strong moral and financial investment in robust public services for the poor, it now invests in an increasingly large and punitive penal system to manage them. The public safety net has failed to help millions of people stabilize lives made precarious by inequality and trauma.

Sufrin believes that “it’s possible to advocate for improved health care inside jails at the same time we advocate for improved services and criminal justice reforms outside of jail. … We can advocate for those kinds of changes while also ensuring that the care [pregnant incarcerated women] receive while they’re in jail meets the community standard of care and is comprehensive. This does not mean that we should make jails less safe or less resourced to provide health care so that we can make communities more resourced. We need to work on both at the same time.”


Carolyn Sufrin is a medical anthropologist and an obstetrician-gynecologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Learn more about Jailcare at www.jailcare.org/.


The Afterlife of the American War in Vietnam

by Mark Padoongpatt, author of the forthcoming Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America

As we celebrate Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month this year, we do so right as the United States is commemorating the 50th year anniversary of the “American War” in Vietnam. The war has had a profoundly deep, wide-ranging, and lasting impact on Asian/Pacific Islander America. It resulted in the death of millions of Vietnamese, Hmong, Laos, and Khmer people, including civilians, at the hands of U.S. soldiers and bombs. It generated displacement, trauma, political destabilization, and the migration of roughly 1.2 million Southeast Asians, many of them refugees, to the United States between 1975-2000 — a migration that (coupled with the 1965 Immigration Act) transformed the composition and demographics of Asian/Pacific Islander America and America as a whole.

The war, of course, is not a vestige of the past. As such it demands critical, relentless reflection if we want to understand the diversity and tensions among Asian/Pacific Islander Americans today as well as the workings of the postwar American empire. For one, the war extended beyond Vietnam and was a flashpoint (a bloody and violent one, no doubt) of a much longer period of U.S. Cold War intervention throughout Southeast Asia. The affects of U.S. empire and war also ran much deeper than combat, bombings, militarization, and state-sponsored dictatorships. America insinuated itself into the textures of everyday life via embassies, businesses, private organizations, educational programs, modernization projects, popular culture, tourism, and various other forms of cultural diplomacy, such as the Peace Corps, to win “hearts and minds” in pursuit of foreign policy objectives in the region. All of which shaped personal and group identities, relationships, worldviews, and cultural practices as people in Southeast Asia came to terms with American global power.

One way to understand the everyday life — and “afterlife” — of U.S. empire in Southeast Asia is through foodways. My book, Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America, traces how the informal postwar U.S. empire in Thailand turned Thai food into a central site of Thai American identity and community formation in Los Angeles. Though Thailand has the distinction of being the only Southeast Asian country to avoid formal Western colonization (a distinction Thais take immense pride in), after World War II, however, the United States, as a new global leader, maneuvered itself into the country more intrusively than ever before to combat the spread of communism, ushering in what Benedict Anderson has referred to as Thailand’s “American Era.” This neocolonial relationship established circuits of exchange between the two countries. It allowed thousands of U.S. citizens to go toThailand and “discover” the exciting new flavors and tastes of Thai food. Many, particularly white women, introduced Thai cuisine back in the United States by writing “Siamese” cookbooks and teaching cooking classes. When Thais arrived in Los Angeles, they reinvented and repackaged Thai food in various ways to meet America’s growing fascination with the cuisine. This led to Thais constructing their identities mainly through the perceived exoticness and sensuousness of Thai food.

The history of Thai food reveals that the American war in Vietnam was more than Vietnam, and that it lives on in mundane ways and unexpected places. Its legacy affects everything from the cuisines featured in restaurants and the identities of restaurateurs, cooks, and grocery store clerks to the contours of entrepreneurship and the look and feel of urban and suburban spaces. The experiences and stories that stem from it — though not reducible to a singular time, place, group, or narrative — stand as a reminder that, as Asian/Pacific Islander Americans, our relationship with America is rooted in and defined by dominance.


Mark Padoongpatt is Assistant Professor of Asian and Asian American Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

His book Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai Americapublishing this September, explores the factors that made foodways central to the Thai American experience.