Racism in America: An Unexpected Kind of Culture Shock

When people, especially women, from my country, Pakistan, come to the United States, their “culture shock” includes things like the freedom to be an individual, the ease of availability of alcohol, and the perceived meritocracy of the American system. My culture shock was America’s racism, made worse by the fact that I didn’t really understand what it meant to be discriminated against for simply having a different skin color or not speaking English “perfectly.”

Racial discrimination is both a fascinating and highly distressing concept for me. In my part of the world, people don’t have a clear answer if asked to identify their race. Most of them would respond with their ethnicity. So, my knowledge of active racial discrimination came from literature or film, such as Lincoln and Amazing Grace.

In November 2008, as I listened to Barack Obama give his victory speech, I was moved to tears. From another continent, it appeared to me as not just the victory of one man, but of a whole nation against its racist past. The American people, I thought, had finally moved past their history of systemic racism, segregation, and discriminatory policies that disconnected huge segments of the population from opportunity.

Six years later, I landed in Chicago, home to Obama and to one of the largest African American populations in the U.S. I was excited to be here, especially the South Side of Chicago which is largely populated by African Americans, and to see the interaction between Americans of all races in one of America’s largest and most liberal cities. To me, Obama’s election–and re-election–signaled that the era of institutional racism against African Americans was over, but I was curious to see if people’s individual attitudes and experiences had changed.

I learned that, on too many levels, they had not.

I was shocked when I started reading Michelle Alexander’s fascinating book The New Jim Crow. The book asserts that to this day, when even rich and powerful White men like LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling end up paying a price for being racist, the US Justice System continues to discriminate against African Americans. The book further explains how the practice of mass incarceration disproportionately impacts African Americans, effectively relegating them to “second-class” citizens by denying them the very rights that were supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

I did not know how to process how the same country that could elect a black man to be its leader could at the same time brutally discriminate against a huge portion of black men through an unjust criminal justice system. Could it be that Obama, with his eloquence, intelligence, and impressive academic credentials was a less threatening figure for white Americans? Was it because everyone likes a rags-to-riches story but would rather ignore the realities of multi-generational poverty–a reality that is much more common? Indeed, moving from poverty to wealth is an almost impossible goal for most poor Americans, black or white, since the majority of the wealth in this country is inherited from one generation to the next.

Since reading Alexander’s book, I have become obsessed with learning about racial dynamics in large U.S. cities and how they are affecting American life. I couldn’t have found a better place than Living Cities to explore the intersection between race-based disadvantage and urban policymaking.

Recently during a staff brown bag meeting, my colleagues and I watched a haunting film titled Cracking the Code: The Systems of Racial Inequity.

The part of the film that spoke to me most was a segment about internalized racism, something I have myself witnessed among my own community of South Asians who moved to the United States as young adults–mostly as highly qualified doctors or engineers–and have now become naturalized U.S. citizens. They speak like white Americans, live in suburbs largely populated by white people, and their children are friends with either children of South Asian descent or from white families. Although they were born in a culture that didn’t recognize race, once they came to America, they realized at some point that they needed to be like the White-Folk in order to “make it” in America. Many now exhibit racist attitudes and behaviors towards all non-white people, particularly black people, who they view as members of society they must not mingle with if they want to be accepted.

It is the prevalence of this sort of attitude–the subconscious racism that still persists in American society–that makes Living Cities’ Racial Equity and Inclusion (REI) initiative so important to a new framework for analyzing urban policy and using it for the benefit of all those who populate these urban areas.

Cities should not just be places for better economic opportunities, but also for economic inclusion where all residents can equally benefit from all that their city has to offer. To that end, policymakers, the movers and shakers in cities, must incorporate the racial lens into how they think about their cities and the opportunities that they provide for lower-income families of color.

The author is a Knowledge and Impact summer intern at Living Cities, and a Masters in Public Policy student at The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. She tweets at @zainabimam and blogs at gulaabjamun.wordpress.com.

– This blog first appeared on the Living Cities blog here: http://www.livingcities.org/blog/?id=345#sthash.Zk14SHIU.dpuf


Dear Karachi, your wariness is understandable but the internally displaced Pakistanis need you

When I visited Sweden’s largest city Stockholm in 2011, I found it to be unbelievably non-diverse. Everyone was white and English was a language such few people spoke that sometimes I had to communicate in gestures. That appears to be changing, with Sweden taking in large numbers of immigrants particularly from conflict areas like Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, and Syria.

As all migration does, there was a sense of alarm among the Swedish people who were wary of the immigrants who were coming into their country from parts of the world that many Swedes have never even been to. On the other hand, the immigrants felt isolated and unwelcomed, unable to adjust to their new home with all its seemingly insurmountable cultural differences.

Today, I read a heartwarming story about a Swedish woman who used this cultural gap as an opportunity to bring together all the diverse cultures that were now beginning to form a presence in Sweden. She started by hosting small potluck dinners in Stockholm where she invited migrants from the suburbs and natives from the heart of the city. Naturally, once they had interacted in an informal, friendly environment, the two groups of people developed a level of comfort.

This reminded me of the mass-scale internal displacement in Pakistan right now due to a military operation against the Taliban in North Waziristan. While Punjab, the country’s strongest province by economy, has opened itself up for these internally displaced persons (IDPs), the smaller province of Sindh has responded with suspicion, even the people of ethnically-diverse city of Karachi.

It’s easy to see why, though no less dehumanizing and infuriating. The IDPs are predominantly Pashtuns, who in the world of Pakistani stereotypes have come to be associated with conservative ideology and a sympathetic corner for violence. Pashtuns already form a large part of the population in Sindh, where they inhabit the province’s largest city Karachi and pretty much own all of the city’s broken yet lucrative transportation sector. They are the second largest ethnicity in Karachi, and are widely stereotyped as having conservative Islamic views and a cultural acceptance of arms and violence.

It is primarily this clash of ethnicities that explains why protests have erupted in Sindh against this current wave of IDPs.

Let’s start with the Sindhis, a cultural rather than a geographical term. They are already a political and economic minority in the province because of non-Sindhi influence in the province’s largest city Karachi. They feel that with the arrival of thousands of more non-Sindhis they will become even more marginalized.

And who has the most influence over Karachi? The Muhajirs, ironically the people who themselves or whose ancestors have migrated from India into Pakistan ever since the two countries gained independence from the British in 1947. The Muhajirs who settled in Karachi were mostly from Urdu-speaking areas of India, such as Uttar Pradesh (UP), and have ultimately come to form the largest ethnic group in Karachi. In the aftermath of the partition, the Muhajirs became Pakistan’s ruling elite by default. But they also considered themselves the cultural elite and thus never adopted any of the cultural aspects of the Sindhis. Instead, they started to enforce their own language and lifestyle onto the few Sindhis who lived in Karachi. This has contributed to Sindhis’ phobia (for the lack of a better word) of migrants.

While these clashing ethnicities have been consistent themes in Karachi’s, and Sindh’s, governance problems, they also make this area of Pakistan the most diverse in the country. Karachi used to be described as “faqeer manash” – the city that provides a home to the poorest of the poor. Unfortunately, now the city mostly functions on auto-pilot while the political groups that claim to represent the clashing ethnicities of Karachi continue to quibble among themselves instead of trying to collaboratively govern the goldmine that they are sitting on.

All these factors, among others including deteriorating security in the province following an influx of IDPs from the Swat operation against Taliban, have contributed to suspicion towards migrants in Karachi and Sindh. But suspicion towards migrants fuels many of the problems of migration, turning the situation into a vicious cycle.

To be sure, the entry of migrants does cause economic, social, and political pressures and problems that make the lives of current residents difficult. But for all of those categories, there is also the healthy diversity that migration fosters.

Instead of pushing distressed people out just to selfishly further your own interests, residents can help ease migrants into the life of a city and ensure that they don’t have to resort to crime and terrorism in order to get by and feed their families.

Let’s not make an economic issue into a political one, for when we do, we create hostility in our own people for our own people. Suspicion is the last thing the IDPs deserve from us in their need of hour.

Can denser cities prevent rape?

Recently, City Lab (formerly Atlantic Cities) published an article with a very interesting hypothesis: how better land use in India’s large cities can help tackle that country’s rape problem, which is fast taking the proportions of an epidemic. The author, Neil Padukone, argued that Indian cities, particularly Delhi, were designed according to the single-use planning pattern which lends itself to give birth to sprawling cities with large swaths of unpopulated land. These swaths, he feels, make Indian cities so unsafe because they are isolated areas where all kinds of crimes can be committed with some degree of certainty of impunity.

Single-use land design means that a city’s districts are drawn along lines of use, so that a residential area is completely separate from a shopping area. This pattern appeared to dominate land use in large western cities after World War II. However, in the 1990s, the US began to warm up to the idea of mixed-use land planning. Residential areas were no longer just that and began to include options for shopping, eating etc. – basically everything that you needed was walking distance or a relatively short commute away.

Mixed-use design, Padukone argues, would be an effective solution to secure the streets of these sprawling Indian cities. He concludes that with mixed use, and thus constant hustle-bustle, there will always be a set of eyes on the street which would ensure better security.

While that idea holds some merit (mostly for original thought), claiming that better land use in cities can improve safety for women, and residents in general, is a bit of a stretch. Even Padukone’s own argument that more pairs of eyes would mean more security seems like an unlikely conclusion, and certainly not a good solution.

As a South Asian woman myself, I can testify to the fact that there are way too many eyes on me everywhere I go as it is, and it does not secure me. If anything, I would be inclined to believe that that pair of eyes is more an enabler of sexual violence against women than a barrier to it. People stare at a woman who is out on the street as a pastime in countries like ours. More shockingly, violence doesn’t tend to move people into action because when a man is molesting a woman on the street, most people want to ignore it. All of a sudden, for societies as nosy as ours, the sanctity of a person’s right to privacy becomes paramount. On Twitter, when the #YesAllWomen hashtag was trending, an American woman tweeted that when she was in college, a police officer told women to yell “Fire!” in case they found themselves in a violent situation because that tends to mobilize people more than a woman screaming for help.

Secondly, looking at rape as something that happens only, or even mostly, in less crowded and isolated places is an incorrect assumption to make. The Delhi rape case of 2012 didn’t happen in an isolated place, it didn’t happen in a place at all – it happened in a moving bus that the victim sat on willingly because she believed it to be a public transit vehicle. Since then, I have come across at least three more stories, two in India and one in Pakistan, of a woman being raped in a car. That’s a spot that no style of urban planning could have secured. That’s a spot that nobody could have secured, except the people in the vehicle who were the root cause of the problem.

It is important to understand that rape is not a “crime” the way that car-snatching is. Rape is a social problem, one that is bred, supported, and perpetuated by constituents of a society. It is not done because some thuggish men wanted to make some extra cash by selling off a stolen phone, it is committed because in our patriarchal societies can and do justify violence against women.

Making cities more dense will do little, if anything at all, to help tackle rape in India or elsewhere. Only gross misunderstanding of the culture of rape, and that rape is only committed in the streets, would lead one to make such a conclusion. It happens in college campuses, office rooms, bathrooms, and even bedrooms between intimate partners. In fact, two-thirds of rape offenses are committed by someone that the victim knows, not someone who randomly assaults her on the street.

The only way to tackle rape is to fix the mysoginist attitudes towards women which stop people from speaking up and coming to a victim’s defence. If denser cities can bring that about, then by all means let’s go for it. If not, then single-use, mixed-use or no use at all is of little importance to the issue of women’s safety.

More Than Money: The psychological externalities of neighborhood foreclosures

Losing a home can have a strong and long-standing economic and psychological impact on older individuals and their families who experience the loss first-hand. But what about neighbors and friends who are left behind to see auction signs on homes that used to house old friends?

In their paper “The Onset of Depression During the Great Recession: Foreclosure and Older Adult Mental Health,” Kathleen A. Cagney, Christopher R. Browning, James Iveniuk, and Ned English find that a large number of foreclosures in one’s neighborhood can be an important risk factor for the onset of depression among older adults. More specifically, the authors find that foreclosures not only impact individuals and families who directly suffer the loss of a home, but also those who are left behind with less dense communities, neighborhood properties in disrepair, and a general sense of social withdrawal.

Survey data were collected from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP), a nationally representative study of older adults (those aged 57 years or above), which follows study subjects over a long period of time. Data were gathered from the 2005-2006 and the 2010-2011 NSHAP surveys, perfectly bounding the economic downturn and the foreclosure crisis. In order to accurately observe the difference in depressive symptoms, the authors used data of people who had taken the NSHAP survey both times. The respondents’ home addresses were linked to the US censuses of 2000 and 2010 to determine how many housing units were available in the areas of interest, and the NSHAP data was linked to the 2009 American Community Survey to see what proportion of people living in a respondent’s neighborhood fell below the poverty line. ZIP code level data were purchased from RealtyTrac, an authoritative source of data on foreclosure, to determine the percentage of housing units in a ZIP code that had experienced foreclosure.

Studying data from New YorkLos Angeles, and Chicago, the three most populous metropolitan areas for NSHAP respondents, the authors observed a dramatic rise in reports of depressive symptoms among older adults in communities that were hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis. Respondents who had not reported depressive symptoms in the 2005-2006 survey reported them when surveyed in 2010-2011, suggesting that the impact of foreclosure is independent of an existing psychological disorder. Furthermore, the symptoms were found to be worse among respondents whose mobility had reduced over this period of time, making feelings of loneliness and loss more acute.

Although the authors acknowledge the limitations of their data, for instance that the NSHAP data do not allow for a seamless comparison across age groups, they argue that focusing on older adults is important as they are more likely to have lived in a particular neighborhood over a longer period of time and have stronger ties to their surroundings. This would lend credence to the hypothesis that a change in living conditions, induced by foreclosure, would have an emotional impact on these older residents. In fact, studies show that feelings of extreme loneliness can have a severe impact on older individuals, including increasing the chances of a premature death.

As the United States continues to grapple with the aftershocks of the 2010 foreclosure crisis, this study has important implications for policymakers working on policies aimed at the elderly demographic in the US population. With the last of the baby boomers entering their sixties, policymakers must divert more attention towards the emotional needs of older adults, particularly with respect to health and housing needs. A home, old friends, and neighborhood landmarks are memories that enrich individual lives. These factors can in turn impact entire communities and shape local health across the country, therefore warranting the attention of policymakers.

Article Source: Kathleen A. Cagney, Christopher R. Browning, James Iveniuk, and Ned English, “The Onset of Depression During the Great Recession: Foreclosure and Older Adult Mental Health,” American Journal of Public Health 104, No. 3 (March 2014): 498-505.

Feature Photo: cc/(TheTruthAbout)


Recipe for Disaster: The Link Between Urban Planning and Karachi’s Political Violence

349173356_f015a4dd65_b-940x400As Pakistan’s most populous city, Karachi elects the largest number of representatives to the country’s parliament. However, for this electoral influence, Karachi has also paid a price in the form of rampant violence in the past 20 years. Armed groups fight and kill members of rival groups for political power, and in 2012 alone, 2,124 people were killed in the city’s streets.

Political commentators, researchers, and security analysts in Pakistan have attributed political violence to tensions among the various ethnic groups that populate Karachi and want to gain maximum control over the city’s resources. The fact that at least one ethnic cohort repeatedly votes for a political group engaged in violence in Karachi supports this point of view.

Yet while Karachi’s ethnic composition has shifted in recent years, killings motivated by political incentives have continued unabated, raising the question of whether there is more to the violence in Karachi than just ethnicity. In the paper “Informality and Political Violence in Karachi,” Haris Gazdar and Hussain Bux Mallah attempt to answer this question by explaining political violence in terms other than ethnic tensions. The authors suggest that while it is true that the major players in Karachi’s violence have clearly identifiable ethnic bases, studying informal urban planning and land use in the city can explain the persistence and patterns of violence in the metropolis.

Using census data, polling station returns, and qualitative case studies, Gazdar and Mallah examine the relationship between unplanned urbanization and political violence in Karachi. With this information, the researchers map Karachi’s population in terms of migrant rather than ethnic groups and study the dispersion of these groups across the city’s neighborhoods since 1947. They categorize neighborhoods as planned, unplanned, or mixed (semi-planned) based on the level of access to formal urban planning structures such as policing, water, and sewage that each neighborhood provides for its residents. The studies were conducted between 2003 and 2011 on three neighborhoods—Lyari, Jacob Lines, and Kausar Niazi Colony—that started as unplanned residential areas and were eventually regularized.

The authors then describe two cycles of migration that substantially changed Karachi’s demographics. The first migration cycle occurred in 1947 when Karachi received a massive influx of migrants as a result of the partition of the Subcontinent and Pakistan’s creation as an independent state. As Pakistan rapidly industrialized, Karachi underwent a second wave of migration in the 1960s as people from other parts of the country moved to Karachi in search of employment. The authors call members of the first migration cycle “Partition migrants” and members of the latter cycle “post-Partition migrants.”

According to Gazdar and Mallah, with time, communities that had inhabited pre-1947 Karachi began to settle in the city’s oldest urban areas (District South) while suburbs (District Central and East) and industrial areas (District West and Malir) were converted into housing for Partition and post-Partition migrants. Planned low-cost housing schemes were launched in the Central and East districts to accommodate the poorest migrants but the superior planning of these neighborhoods began to attract more affluent Partition migrants who overwhelmingly belonged to one ethnic cohort—the Muhajirs. After analyzing census data, Gazdar and Mallah find that the settlement of Partition migrants in the well-planned districts of Central and East led to great social inequality in Karachi, one factor in the current political violence in the city.

Eventually, the number of post-Partition migrants in Karachi increased, landing them in unplanned settlements that cropped up close to planned settlements. As the political landscape became more accommodating of ethnic groups that inhabited unplanned neighborhoods, the government in the 1970s decided to regularize existing unplanned settlements, including ones that were seen as limiting growth of planned neighborhoods. The government’s action resulted in a sense of insecurity among the Partition migrants who would have benefitted from greater development of planned areas. Consequently, the Partition migrants chose to empower third-party intermediary groups against what they felt was a hostile state.

According to Gazdar and Mallah, the underlying ethnic tension in Karachi eventually turned violent and politically significant when the government began to develop planned housing for its employees (from non-Muhajir backgrounds) near Jacob Lines, an unplanned neighborhood populated by poor Partition migrants. The migrants were often harassed by police and threatened with eviction on the basis of complaints from residents of planned segments. Feeling insecure, the Partition migrants turned to third-party intermediaries—sometimes members of neighborhood gangs—instead of planning authorities, who the migrants felt were partial to affluent residents.

Through their research into the history of urban planning and growth in Karachi, Gazdar and Mallah conclude that violent political conflict in Karachi can be traced back to divisions between planned and unplanned districts. The authors’ research shows that urban planners in cities as socially diverse as Karachi need to carefully consider the unintended consequences of urban policymaking that can turn a city’s diversity into a threat rather than a strength. Karachi can be seen as a prime example of how urban planning may lead to many long-term consequences, even ones that can prove deadly.

Feature Photo: cc/(megabeth)

Published in Chicago Policy Review on February 12, 2014.


What the PTI protest means for Karachi

“All I need to do is order, and the Saathis will cut up those gathered at Teen Talwar with talwars.” – Altaf Hussain, chief of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

Last night, there was barely anyone who was unaware of these golden words uttered by Altaf Hussain whose political party was, until the elections of May 11, 2013, being conspicuously touted as “progressive” and “liberal”. Some shooters then followed up with Altaf Hussain’s threat, and injuries were reported at the Teen Talwar protest. It is a no-brainer who the shooters were.

MQM’s violent past and present is barely a secret. But for Altaf bhai, the man who claims to own Karachi through MQM, it is a new low to be threatening unarmed Karachiites from “the other side of the bridge” with direct violence.

What has brought about this desperation? Why is the MQM, allegedly the most popular party in Karachi, feeling threatened by a bunch of “burgers” who have gathered to make an anti-rigging statement in a constituency where the MQM itself has accepted unfair elections?

Here is why. Since NA-250 was formed as a constituency in the 2002 elections, it has been a weak point for the MQM, which wants nothing more than complete control over Karachi by hook or by crook.

In 2002, Nasreen Jalil – who later became the deputy mayor of Karachi – lost the seat by 2,048 votes to Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal’s Abdul Sattar Afghani. This was a wake-up call for the MQM – here is a constituency that we must try to capture next time, how dare someone take it from under our noses!

However, not much was made of it because MQM, being the opportunists that they are, happily enjoyed their position as the rulers of the city as the Musharraf administration had put in place local bodies and MQM’s Mustafa Kamal became the mayor of Karachi (and did some great work for the city).

In 2008, however, they knew that they must win this seat in order to perfect their hegemony over Karachi. Khushbakht Shujaat, who the MQM is hoping to have declared winner this time around as well, won by a margin of 10,000 votes and secured 53,295 votes against PPP’s Mirza Ikhtiyar Baig.

Come 2013, and the MQM realizes that the burgeoning population in Defence and Clifton is obviously aware of MQM’s thuggish ways and political incapability and is inclined towards the PTI. So inclined that the PTI has just as strong a shot at winning NA-250 as MQM. If you saw footage of the PTI dharna yesterday against MQM’s poll rigging in NA-250, you would see that there is no way that MQM’s Khushbakht Shujaat could have won the seat without some serious competition from Dr. Arif Alvi. The rest, we all know. Closed polling stations, torn polling slips and MQM workers harassing the people who had come out to vote and were clearly not going to vote for the MQM.

PTI supporters have not taken to this kindly. Not only have they gathered enough evidence of rigging to submit to the ECP’s election tribunals, they have also decided to voice their protest openly into the street. And that is what has troubled the MQM as much as the fact that they clearly do not have a grip on this city unless they try to force people to accept it. Before this, the residents of Karachi have taken every insult to their intelligence from the MQM sitting down. Nobody stood up to them – nobody told them that the city isn’t theirs, it is the residents’. And now that a group of “burgers” has come out to stand up to them, their “progressive” and “liberal” leader has felt shockwaves right up to London.

It is important to note here that Karachi’s support to the PTI has been evident in constituencies other than NA-250 as well. There are other constituencies in Karachi where PTI candidates managed to garner votes and come in second to MQM candidates, which is evidence that the people of Karachi would vote out the MQM, given the chance. Interestingly, the MQM has realized that there is a new kid on the block and, like the brats that they have always been, they want all the attention back.

Furthermore, despite the rigging and intimidation of voters, results show that MQM has still lost. The PML-N does not need the MQM’s support to form a government in the center and the PPP does not need MQM to form a government in Sindh. And what have our MQM brothers done whenever they see their relevance dwindling? Play politics. Create unrest in the city that they wish they owned.

It is not as if PTI’s exposé of the rigging on a couple of seats will somehow topple the mandate that MQM have gotten in Karachi. That is not what the PTI is, or at least should be, aiming for. But this protest is about a bigger principle – the MQM does not own Karachi, and there is a section of residents, mobilized primarily by PTI, who have decided to tell the MQM that to their face. And the “giants” are now feeling insecure.

More power to the protesters who are asking for their constitutional right to vote.

More power to the people.


Long live, Pakistan.

Note: The stats come from the websites of the Election Commission of Pakistan and Geo TV.