Long Live the King

(From official 'Bike for Dad' promotional video/YouTube)

Tomorrow, the highly-anticipated ‘Bike for Dad’ day in Thailand will see 600,000 of the country’s finest (approximately 100,000 in Bangkok, 500,000 throughout the country, and 10,000 overseas) embarking on bicycles rides to celebrate the 88th birthday of King Bhumipol Adulyadej and show their gratitude to His Majesty.  According to General Prayut Chan-o-cha, this event has been described as an opportunity for riders to promote exercise, Thai culture and national unity while cycling and shouting “Long Live the King.”  Thirty-thousand police and security forces will be supporting the event in Bangkok,  particularly  in light of the August 17 bombing at Bangkok’s Erawan shrine.  In the capital, 84 roads will be closed for the majority of the day and commuters not participating in the ride are urged to either stay home or travel via BTS or expressways (both of which are free all day in light of Friday’s event).

Thailand is a fascinating place to live in.  This race- its organization, the momentum and promotion behind it, and the city’s embrace of ‘Bike for Dad’- is a study in itself.  I’m not sure where I’ll be during the race tomorrow- anywhere near the course is sure to be jam packed and at a standstill- but I’m hoping I can find somewhere to spectate.

*Side note: I’d never heard of a link between celebrating a monarch’s birthday and bicycling.  But after a little research, I found  that we Americans used to do the same thing for Presidents Day in the U.S.  In the 1890s, Americans used to pedal en masse on February 22 on what was officially marked as Bicycle Day.  Seeking activities to do on their day off, Americans turned to the newest craze of cycling.  In the style of typical American opportunism/consumerism, merchants would peddle (I know, I had to do it) their newest bicycle models to consumers in hopes of boosting sales ahead of the holiday.  Soon afterwards, however, Americans became bored with biking, industry began producing cars, and now we associate Presidents Day with deals on new cars.  But, at one point, we also biked in honor of our leaders.  Celebrate.

Missing the Mark

A Syrian man reacts while standing on the rubble of his home near Aleppo. (Pablo Tosco/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, Republican presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson voiced perspectives that underscore the harm that comes from perpetuating stereotypes.  Trump said that he would “absolutely” implement the creation of a national database to register all Muslims living in the U.S.  Not to be outshone, and in reference to potential Syrian refugees, Carson used rabid dogs as an analogy and stated that just as most people would protect their children from a rabid dog, so should we create mechanisms to vet Syrian refugees.

Such broad strokes are neither recent nor unusual.  Black Americans have also bore the brunt of rhetoric that first painted them as “black brutes” as early as the 19th century. In justifying his fatal shooting of 18-year old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Officer Darren Wilson described Brown as looking like a “demon.”  Similar variations in other cases include the words “zombie” and “monster” and are often used as testimony regarding the need to self-protect against unarmed black men.  Our First Family is particularly subject to race-based insults.  Over the summer, former mayor Patrick Rushing of Airway Heights, Washington referred to “monkey man Barack” and “Gorilla face Michelle” on a Facebook post; amidst public furor, Rushing later resigned from his position.

These examples are extreme, but so is the language and actions that the fearful or biased among us have used towards groups we perceive as threatening.  This blame game seeps into all corners of our society.  At Harvard Law School last week, portraits of several of the school’s black professors have been defaced by black tape.  Democrats and Republicans alike have voted to place further restrictions on an already thorough and time-consuming vetting process for Syrians and Iraqi refugees.  Over half of U.S. governors have said they do not welcome Syrian refugees within their state borders (it is worth nothing that Governor Mark Dayton is not one of them).

We are quick to vilify certain populations to a point where racial and religious biases have become commonplace.  Why, however, did we not vilify white terrorists when Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston last summer?  Did business and political leaders make broad generalizations about Wade Michael Page- also white- when he murdered six people and wounded four others at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin?  Since the September 11 attacks on U.S. soil, 48 Americans have been killed by white supremacists, nearly double the number of Americans (26) killed by Muslim terrorists.  ISIL recruits from countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, and Russia, but policies and the public eye are almost solely focused on threats from Syria and Iraq.

Last week’s attacks on Paris shook the world, serving as a sober reminder for our governments to remain vigilant.  But we cannot misdirect all our fear nor place all our blame on selected scapegoats.  Not all Syrians or Iraqis are terrorists.  Not all blacks are dangerous.  Not all whites are Nazi supremacists.  Placing restrictions on U.S. immigration is necessary; wholesale prevention of refugees from two countries is not.  Anyone can threaten another, regardless of the passport they hold or the color of their skin.  Xenophobia will not protect us; it will blind us and slowly break us apart.

“Model” Minnesota Hides What’s Underneath

Downtown Minneapolis skyline.  (LizNemmers/MinnPost)

As a person of color who has spent much of her life in Minnesota, I was dismayed to see yet another instance of police brutality towards a young black man, this time resulting in the death of 24-year old Jamar Clark. Sadly, I found that I was no longer shocked by what happened. As a result of the near-constant frequency and awareness of #BlackLivesMatter on social and news media, Americans are becoming increasingly desensitized to the racially charged violence that occurs daily throughout the country. Like sandpaper on wood, these events have begun to wear down the sharp edges of rage and horror most of us first felt last year at Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. Yet after Clark was shot, many Minnesotans on social media expressed disbelief that such an event could happen here. On the contrary; I was surprised that something this catalytic hadn’t happened earlier.

Race inequality and its effects on employment, education, and rising neighborhood crime have undeniable negative impact on black communities. Recent studies by WalletHub and 24/7 Wall St. have shown that Minnesota has the largest racial poverty gap in the nation and is one of the worst cities for black Americans to live in. While the typical white household in the area earns an annual $73,700, the typical black household annually earns under $28,000. The Twin Cities are heralded for an average unemployment rate of 3.9 percent; when you focus on black residents, however, that unemployment rate more than triples to 12.8 percent.

Such bleak statistics are drowned out by glossy articles praising Minneapolis as the best city in America. In 2014, Outside Magazine named Minneapolis one of the best 16 places to live in the U.S. The StarTribune recently published an article from the website Patch on Earth that lists Minneapolis/St. Paul as the first among 8 Absolute Top Cities in the U.S. to Live In; Patch cites the city’s food scene and thriving job market as reasons for the city’s ranking. But outdoor fitness, food trucks, and ample job opportunities do not appear to benefit black communities living in areas such as North Minneapolis, where Jamar Clark called home. Simply being Minnesota Nice is not enough.

Our Federal and state governments have begun to recognize this disparity and are making strides to shift the dynamic. In early November, President Obama announced a new order to “ban the box,” which would eliminate a check box on Federal job application forms that currently require former convicts in the early stages of hiring to notify potential employers of any past criminal record. Banning the box would provide an opportunity for reformed candidates with previous criminal histories to more fairly compete for Federal employment.

Also in November, Gov. Mark Dayton announced his commitment to improve the diversity ratio within state government management roles; currently nine out of 10 leadership positions are filled by white employees. Dayton has pledged to ensure that Minnesota government mirrors the state’s increasingly diverse population and recently launched a new office within the Department of Employment and Economic Development that will focus on increased minority hiring and contracting. And in Hennepin County, the Career Pathways workforce program works to recruit lower-income candidates who lack four-year college degrees, but show promise as employees for skill-specific roles.

These systemic policy changes and programs are critical in shifting our city’s racial imbalance and are precisely what we must continue to support and fund. As Minnesotans, we should be proud of the Twin Cities and its high standing in the nation’s eyes, but we cannot let that praise cloud over the critical gaps that remain to be addressed.