By Flaviana Sandoval
BU News Service
BOSTON — The 2018 Boston Book Festival took over the streets and venues around Copley Square on Saturday, Oct. 13, featuring a rich selection of panelists, writers and journalists who presented their work and shared their ideas on a range of topics, from cultural change, diversity and immigration, to feminism and youth activism.
At the Trinity Forum, in the basement of Trinity Church, authors Monica Muñoz Martinez, Laura Wides-Muñoz and Jabari Asim came together for the session “America’s Original Sin: Racism,” which touched on the roots of racial discrimination in the U.S. and how it has shaped American culture and communities over the years.
The session was moderated by Maria Garcia, senior editor of the ARTery at WBUR, who ignited the conversation with a remark on how the voices of racism victims have been “not only forgotten but also purposely and very deliberately obscured by the state and by the conventional narratives of history in the U.S.”
Muñoz Martinez, a history professor of American Studies at Brown University and 2017 Carnegie Fellow, talked about her work with descendants of racial violence in Texas and the importance of contrasting official narratives with their testimonies.
“In many cases, they had preserved family archives, documents, family records, family photographs, as a way of speaking back to the state archives in particular,” she said. “The criminalization of ethnic Mexicans was so pervasive that you would see it in the media reports, in the legal records. Simply labeling somebody a bandit gave the police a culture of impunity, so there was no public outrage on a national level.”
Muñoz Martinez’s book “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas,” chronicles the history of vigilantes and law enforcement officials who killed Mexican residents with impunity in the first decade of the twentieth century. By tracking down and speaking to victim’s relatives, Muñoz Martinez was able to tell the hidden side of the story and uncover how this massacre had a lasting impact on Hispanic communities in Texas.
“Primarily young men were targeted for murder, but children, wives and neighbors witnessed these acts of terror,” Muñoz Martinez said. “That gave me a chance to also write about how communities are shaped by what they witness and the kind of terror that they have to navigate on a daily basis.”
Constant fear and anxiety were common traits in the work of all three authors. In her book “The Making of a Dream: How a Group of Young Undocumented Immigrants Helped Change What it Means to Be American,” Wides-Muñoz explored the emotional impact that fighting for inclusion and legalization has had on the “dreamers” and on immigrants themselves.
“There is a very physical toll that happens. A mental toll that we don’t see, but the result is going to permeate across our country in terms of people’s ability to engage in their neighborhoods, with their families,” Wides-Muñoz said. “As individuals, it is incredibly weighty to sustain a movement over time because of this toll.”
Asim, director of the creative writing graduate program at Emerson College and author of the book “We Can’t Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies, and the Art of Survival,” also addressed what the moderator of the session called “the very physical dangers of racism.”
“We’re aware of these dangers and risks to the body and we know that they’re daily,” Asim said. “If you look at the news today, you’ll see things like the story of a young man who knocked on a door and asked for directions, and the response was a shotgun.”
He was referring to the case of Brennan Walker, a 14-year-old African-American who was shot at by a white homeowner in the suburb of Rochester Hills in Detroit.
On the morning of April 12, 2018, Walker knocked on a door to ask for directions after missing his bus on his way to Rochester High School. A woman inside yelled at him and accused him of trying to break into the house. While he tried to explain that he was only asking for directions, a man came downstairs, grabbed a gun and fired a gunshot.
The shot missed and Walker was able to run to safety, but the story made the headlines all across the country and was catalogued by civil rights activists as an example of what it means to be black in America.
In Asim’s view, the racial tensions that dominated American culture before the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, are in no way a thing of the past. In fact, they seem to have shaped black people’s relations to law enforcement and are still present in the way modern police forces in the U.S. operate.
“The difference is that they’re intensely and absurdly militarized now, which we saw in Ferguson, where we saw people marching with placards and raised fists, facing down tanks and all kinds of military equipment that you might see on a battle ground but not in a suburban street,” said Asim.
“If we think historically, there’s been a lot of work done to create this myth of the American West: that Native Americans, indigenous populations, Ethnic Mexicans, etc., are the antagonists of Anglo colonization and success,” Muñoz Martinez said. “And so, the logic that calls for the need to brutally police people who are deemed to be the antagonists of progress is a narrative that we’re still living with.”
The session comes at a time when racial relations and immigration are very much alive in the public discussion across the U.S. According to a recent report by Amnesty International, over 6,000 asylum seekers from Mexico and Central America (including at least 3,000 children) were separated from relatives at the Mexican border from late spring to mid-August, as a result of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy to tackle illegal immigration.
“I think that as a nation, we’re still really grappling with how to analyze and understand violence that’s cloaked in a legal authority,” said Muñoz Martinez. “The successful criminalization of racial and ethnic minorities means that it really took children in cages to shine a light on the brutality of our current immigration policies.”
Despite the seemingly grim outlook, the session also made some space for hope, as Wides-Muñoz talked about the changes in the media’s depictions of undocumented immigrant youth.
“The fact that Grey’s Anatomy has a whole episode dedicated to a med student who has DACA protection but is afraid of being deported, those things feel frivolous, but they actually are forcing broader America to have these discussions,” Wides-Muñoz said.
The upcoming midterm elections also came into focus, when Wides-Muñoz argued that a necessary change on policy could only come from legislators in Capitol Hill. “So if you have a vote and you don’t exercise it right now, I think that is official negligence, and if you’re not getting others to get involved as well,” she said.
The room erupted in applause.
“The power imbalance hasn’t changed, it’s still wealthy white people. Everyone else is on the other side of that power imbalance,” said Asim. “If you look at the census’ statistics, people of color will eventually be the majority in this country.”
According to the most recent data by the United States Census Bureau, released in March 2018, the white population in America will shrink to 49.7 percent by 2045. In turn, Hispanics will account for 24.6 percent of the country’s total population. Blacks will represent 13.1 percent.
“Then it will change,” Asim said. “It’s the power of numbers.”