The Future of Central Asian Studies: A Eulogy

Yesterday I gave the keynote speech at the 22nd conference of the  Association of Central Eurasian Students at Indiana University. I am an alumnus of the Central Eurasian Studies (CEUS) program at IU so it was exciting to get to talk to the next generation, even though I may have traumatized them with this talk. Below, the text of my speech:

As you may already know, I am a CEUS alumnus, and I look back at my time here mostly with appreciation.  While I was here, of course, I complained about CEUS with everyone else, even coining the phrase “afCEUSki” to describe it – that’s a joke for the Uzbek specialists in the room — but the truth is there is tremendous value in area studies programs, particularly programs that emphasize languages and history in the way CEUS does.

You never know how much you appreciate CEUS until you’re out in the real world answering questions like “Where is Central Asia?” with “It’s in the center of Asia”. So it’s great to be talking with young scholars who know beyond the basics and are interested in the future of the field.

I started my MA in CEUS in 2004, and looking back, it’s hard to believe how much has changed. I thought about titling this talk “The Future of Central Asian Studies” until I realized how much my keynote resembled a eulogy. Because the truth is, Central Asian studies is in bad shape. Our field is a great example of how funding impacts knowledge, and how without money and jobs, research on a region declines. Our field is also a cautionary tale on the dangers of linking independent academic research to military intelligence, and what happens to scholars when the wars that indirectly fund their training end. And our field is also a fine example of the challenges of research in authoritarian states, and the limitations of what scholars can do in restricted information environments.

That said, I still feel very strongly that research on Central Asia is important, and that we need to figure out a way to keep it going despite these obstacles. Though great strides in scholarship have been made since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this is still a woefully underexplored field, regardless of your discipline. It is a field of untranslated texts for historians, unexplored regions for anthropologists, and untested theories for political scientists. It’s a field of unanswered questions. And one of the biggest questions, unfortunately, is how to keep the field alive. I would imagine that is a question many of you are asking as you wonder what you will do with your degree.

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Institutional bias in academic hiring

My latest for the Chronicle of Higher Education is on institutional bias, which has come, in academia, to function something like inherited wealth:

What that means is something every Ph.D. from a less-prestigious institution knows all too well: No amount of publishing, teaching excellence, or grants can compensate for an affiliation that is less than favorable in the eyes of a search committee. The fate of aspiring professors is sealed not with job applications but with graduate-school applications. Institutional affiliation has come to function like inherited wealth. Those who have it operate in a different market, more immune from the dark trends – unemployment, adjunctification – that dog their less-prestigious peers.

The Great Recession is notable not only for its relentlessness – many people, six years later, are still waiting to feel the effects of the “recovery” – but for the way a tiny elite was able to continue their luxurious lifestyle while the livelihood of the majority was turned upside down. During the first two years of the “recovery,” the mean net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28 percent, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93 percent dropped by 4 percent. With wages largely stagnant and cost of living soaring, it made less difference what one did during the recovery than what kind of money one had before the crash. More and more, the American Dream is a foregone conclusion, a tale told in reverse.

The same trend holds true in academia: career stagnation based on institutional affiliation. Where you come from remains cruelly indicative of where you will go. What you actually do on the journey is, to the status-obsessed, irrelevant.

With institutional bias in hiring now proven by multiple social scientists, why don’t prospective graduate students simply limit their applications to favored elite institutions? The answer is often financial, and, again, speaks to privilege and discrimination endemic to academic culture.

Read the whole thing, Academia’s One Percent, at the Vitae section of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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Ferguson Inc — a story of money and a movement

Months of research and interviews went into my latest for Politico Magazine, which is on the sustainability of the Ferguson protest movement, the participants of which are struggling to survive:

Ferguson began as a movement led by the people who had lost. Protesters took to the streets not only to rail against racism and police brutality, but also to decry decades of deeper divides: in housing, education, jobs, and the court system. But as the months wore on, the media frenzy built up, and the money rolled in, Ferguson turned into something else. A struggling suburb without a prominent industry suddenly had one: Ferguson Inc., a national protest movement.

In St. Louis, money is in the air—or, at least, talk of money. In the months since Michael Brown’s death, following all of the street violence, tear gas, and press conferences, national money flooded into Ferguson. The problem is no one seems to know where the money is going. They only know who is not seeing it: folks on the ground. Ferguson Inc. may be big business, but its dividends for the average St. Louis protester are few. Three months after the grand jury let Wilson walk, many struggle to simply survive. […]

“Ferguson” has become a buzzword, shorthand for engaged activism or lucrative chaos, depending which way you lean. Twitter splashes #Ferguson across their office walls, Ferguson T-shirts are sold at rallies across the country, and in November, media pumped Ferguson for ratings like they were staging a hunger games. Documentaries of protesters abound, with the documented now complaining that outsiders are profiting off their exploitation. Dozens of online fundraisers drop the Ferguson name to push for everything from community service initiatives to independent journalism to restoring burned-down businesses to riot tourism. National black leaders like Al Sharpton have embraced Ferguson as a cause celebre, much to the dismay of some St. Louis activists, who fear a local movement instigated by youth is being hijacked by an older generation for profit.

Read the full article, Ferguson Inc, at Politico Magazine. And don’t miss the photo gallery by the talented Andrew Moore.


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Why city boycotts are a bad idea

For Quartz, I wrote about calls to boycott Cleveland to protest their stance on the death of Tamir Rice:

To boycott an entire city—particularly a rust belt city like St. Louis or Cleveland with a majority black population—is to strike against an uncertain target. How do you punish those responsible for abuse without making their victims collateral damage?

Cities like Cleveland and St. Louis are often objects of national derision. This is “flyover country,” “the Mistake on the Lake”—places elites would never consider boycotting because they would never considering visiting in the first place. It is easy to call for a boycott of rust belt cities when you do not see their shuttered stores and abandoned malls and long-forgotten factories. It is easy to assume that boycotts carry weight, when the reality is that life here is tenuous, opportunities fleeting and stability low. A boycott means lost wages on your service job, the fastest growing sector in regions still hard-hit by the recession. A boycott means losing the tourism dollars from the few not driven away by your terrible reputation. A boycott means business will go on for local white elites as usual, because racial and class segregation is so deep that residents essentially function in two separate economies—a state of affairs quite different from that of the Montgomery bus system.

Some have suggested that a targeted boycott aimed at a powerful city industry—sports, for example—could sway the powers that be. But this assumes a scale of solidarity that does not exist. If it did, there would be no need for a boycott. The day white St. Louis decides to forgo the Cardinals to show their commitment to black rights is a day black rights have already been won.

Read the full article, How boycotts hurt the cities they are supposed to help, at Quartz

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Best of 2014

2014 was a very hard year – for the world, for my city, and for me. I am grateful to everyone who read and shared my work. Here are the articles that seemed to resonate most:

The peril of hipster economics – Al Jazeera English — 5/28/14

The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back –Medium — 4/14/14

College is a promise the economy does not keep – Al Jazeera English — 5/14/14

The telegenically dead Al Jazeera English — 8/14/14

The Princess Effect – Politico — 7/02/14

Water is a human right, but who is considered a human being?  — Al Jazeera English — 7/23/14

The Adjunct Crisis is Everyone’s Problem – The Chronicle of Higher Education — 10/17/14

How baby boomers ruined parenting forever – Quartz — 11/11/14

Can Minor Languages Make Revolution?  — The Common Reader — 10/1/14

I spent a large part of 2014 writing about Ferguson and St. Louis. The best of that coverage:

“Letter From St. Louis”. Three part series for Politico: Ferguson Won’t Heal (12/1/14)
Burning Ferguson (11/26/14) Ferguson’s Trial (11/25/14)

“I am Darren Wilson”: St. Louis and the Geography of Fear – Quartz — 10/21/14

Why Ferguson has been in a state of emergency for years — Quartz — 11/23/14

The real reason Ferguson is boarding up its storefronts — Quartz — 11/17/14

After Ferguson: St. Louis’s Forgotten Suburbs:  — Politico — 8/26/14

St. Louis’s sons, taken too soon – Al Jazeera English — 8/27/14

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A Bosnian Murder, in Black and White

Umar Lee and I investigated the tragic murder of Bosnian immigrant Zemir Begić for Quartz, and analyzed the case in the context of race relations in St. Louis before and after the Ferguson events:

“What about black on black crime?” is the de facto derailment of conversation on Ferguson. A disproportionate number of homicide victims and perpetrators in St. Louis are black. Like much else in St. Louis, violent crime is segregated, with most crime occurring in impoverished black neighborhoods whose everyday problems are rarely covered by the news. When it is not—as in the Begić case—anxieties about race are inflamed.

For the Bosnian community, predominantly Muslim, race is a complicated subject. Bosnians entered the St. Louis area at a time of deep division. The south city area where they moved upon their arrivalwas populated by two groups: lower-class blacks, some of whom considered Bosnian traditions strange, and lower-class whites, some of whom considered Muslims suspicious—and not quite “white enough.” Bosnians struggled with an uncertain racial identity in a racially polarized community. After 9/11, hostility toward Muslims in the region increased.

“For the time being, probably the most honest answer to the question of whether Bosnians perceive themselves as white is ‘We’re not sure,’” says Jasmin Mujanović, a Bosnian political scientist who notes that American history is full of immigrants—Poles, Irish, Italians—who became “white” only decades after arrival. “I suspect, ultimately, any definitive shift towards ‘whiteness’ among the Bosnian population in the US—when they will self-identify as ‘white people’—will come if or when there is a political need for it, as has historically been the case with other communities here,” he told Quartz.  “Given the recent events in St. Louis, however, that could (unfortunately) change very quickly to a definitive ‘yes.’”

Read the whole thing at Quartz

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No “healing” in Ferguson

My third in a series for Politico:

In order to “heal”, St. Louis has been asked to have “a conversation on race.” This conversation has already been happening, and it is angry and uncomfortable.

The conversation on race is whispered between panicked mothers on the playground, shouted by racists in the night, chanted by protesters on the street. The conversation on race happens every time white families explain they are moving out of a black neighborhood because “it’s different when it’s your own kids,” every time investors announce a gentrification scheme, every time a black man is pulled over on the highway, every time officials tell a grieving community to “calm down.” Michael Brown and Darren Wilson had a conversation on race. Brown’s last words were allegedly: “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting.”

Or maybe they were something else entirely—this city won’t have a chance to settle these questions in an open courtroom.

St. Louis has been having a conversation on race since its foundation. But there has been an element missing. The “conversation on race” that has not happened is the one in which white people listen to black people discuss their own experiences—and believe them. It is not about respectability. It is about respect.

Read the whole thing, Ferguson Won’t Heal, at Politico Magazine.

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Nothing left to boycott

For Quartz, I wrote about the Black Friday boycott in St. Louis:

In the St. Louis metropolitan region, three malls were temporarily closed. The first, the Galleria, is in the commercial suburb of Richmond Heights and is popular with black middle-class St. Louisans. (On a map of St. Louis that went viral in April, this area was referred to as “where black people go to shop.”) The second, West County Center, is in the wealthy town of Des Peres in St. Louis’s affluent West County, and primarily serves white middle-to-upper class shoppers. The third, Chesterfield Mall, is the largest in the state of Missouri. A thriving commercial megaplex, it is even further out in West County, in an area populated primarily by wealthy white conservatives.

There were no mall boycotts near Ferguson, because there are almost no malls left to boycott.

The Black Friday boycott was called to bring attention to how little black lives are valued in America. One look around majority black North County, the area surrounding Ferguson, and this becomes clear. The malls of North County stand vacant, stores shuttered, weeds sprouting in the parking lot. “If we don’t get it, shut it down!” cried the protesters (referring to an indictment), but in North County, commerce was shut down long ago, leaving an impoverished majority black population without resources or job opportunities. This is the landscape of abandonment, where things crumble quietly and communities scramble to survive.

Read the whole thing, In Ferguson, there are no malls left to boycott, at Quartz.

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Ferguson on fire

My latest for Politico:

Darren Wilson will never be on trial. Black St. Louis always was.

For 108 days, there were protests in St. Louis. The vast majority of the protests were non-violent. Looting and arson, limited to the initial August days, became media memes that bore little resemblance to life on the ground. St. Louis is an insular city, and its agony was internal, felt rather than seen. Comparatively few participated in the protests, but everyone shared the dread of the impending decision. Residents woke every day to new emergency procedures, to strategic leaks, to media rumors and lies. When asked why it was taking over 100 days to deliberate over events that allegedly took 90 seconds, officials replied that the road to justice was long. They gave St. Louis a waiting game and let the protesters pretend they were players.

In November, when rumors circulated that a grand jury decision was nearing, the protesters began to prepare. They were fighting the same fight that had brought them out in the early August day: the killing of unarmed black men by law enforcement, and the sanctioning of those killings by the justice system. The preparation meetings were mostly about how to not get killed while pointing this out. Medics, legal advocates, and peace activists gave tips on how to handle tear gas and go limp when arrested. As the media talked riots, protesters talked survival—not only survival of the people they were fighting for, but theirs.

Read the whole thing, Ferguson’s Trial, at Politico.

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Understanding St. Louis and Ferguson (Updated)

In light of the impending Ferguson grand jury decision, here are a few of my articles on the politics, economy and culture of St. Louis. You cannot understand Ferguson without understanding the broader context of the region.

Why Ferguson has been in a state of emergency for years
The real reason Ferguson is boarding up its storefronts
“I am Darren Wilson”: St. Louis and the Geography of Fear
After Ferguson: St. Louis’s Decaying Suburbs 
St. Louis’s sons, taken too soon
The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back
The view from flyover country
The media came to town
Ferguson is not unique

This is a small list. More here. Prayers to STL.

Update: Here are the articles I wrote after the decision was in.

Ferguson Won’t Heal: It’s too soon to turn the page:  (12/1/14)
In Ferguson, there are no malls left to boycott (11/30/14)
Burning Ferguson (11/26/14)
Ferguson’s Trial (11/25/14)

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