“The mainstream media – and may I say also much of the alternative media – has no idea how racism works structurally,” says Rinku Sen, co-author of the new book The Accidental American, which argues for a more open immigration system. “So any race coverage is always about what someone said about someone else.”
Sen, publisher of ColorLines magazine and president and executive director of the Applied Research Center, spent 12 years on the staff of the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO), a national network of organizations of color. She has written widely about immigration, community organizing and women’s lives; in 1996, Ms. Magazine named her one of 21 feminists to watch in the 21st century. In These Times interviewed her earlier this year.
In 25 words or less, what makes you so special? (Keep in mind that humility, while admirable, is boring.)
I can talk to anybody about anything, from the mortgage crisis to trash TV. And I do.
What’s the first thing that comes up when your name is Googled?
The Applied Research Center, the think tank where I work. We are building the nation’s multiracial, multidisciplinary, multi-issue home for racial justice.
Shamelessly plug a colleague’s project.
The Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action is doing amazing work. Its founder, Francis Calpotura, was my co-director at the Center for Third World Organizing for ten years, and he’s a brilliant organizer. Francis has built Million Dollar Clubs across the country, comprised of immigrants who use the money transfer system to sustain their families back home. These Clubs aim to reform that system so that a portion of remittances will be channeled into new funding for community development projects both here and in sending countries. Their boycott of Western Union, from whom they demand lower fees and community reinvestment, has attracted customers and shareholders alike. TIGRA understands that love of family ties together transnational communities – the money transfer agencies understand that too, and the battle is on for who will get to keep and define the use of that wealth.
Describe your politics.
I’m a race woman, so that’s the first lens I use. Since race is a part of most things, I see myself as an economic progressive, a feminist and sexual liberationist.
Come up with a question for yourself and answer it.
What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on lately? I’ve got a new book out with Fekkak Mamdouh called The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization. We argue that a more open immigration system would make things better for everybody, using Mamdouh’s own life story and his experiences building the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York to prove it. [Editor’s note: Read an excerpt from The Accidental American in this ColorLines article.]
In addition to new immigration policy, we also have to finish the job of creating a fair globalization, by heading toward transnational labor, tax, social welfare and governance systems. That’s the only way to break the cycle where people from poor countries are forced to go to rich countries where only their labor (not their politics, culture, or other expressions of full humanity) is welcome. In the book you see the NYC immigrant worker community grow until it includes all Americans, while in the Congressional debate, the image of American communities shrink.
Name a journalist whose work you read religiously. Why?
Gary Younge [New York correspondent for the Guardian and contributor to The Nation.] His reporting hits hard, and his writing is nuanced. Wish I knew him.
What social networking devices do you use (Facebook, MySpace, Digg, Del.icio.us, etc)?
I’m ashamed to say that I’ve just gotten hip to Linked In, which my assistant manages for me, and I guess I’ll be Facebooking soon.
Pick your 5 favorite websites and tell us why.
Racewire.org [ColorLines‘ blog], so I can see what my own people are saying.
YouTube.com, because its often funny.
Independent.co.uk, so I can track my cousin Kim Sengupta.
NYTimes.com, because I have to.
What’s a mistake the mainstream media always makes that really gets under your skin?
The mainstream media – and may I say also much of the alternative media – has no idea how racism works structurally, so any race coverage is always about what someone said about someone else. So boring and not the point. Reporters know how to look for patterns, but somehow they go blind when those patterns are racial.
What’s one piece of legislation (state or national) you’d like to see passed right now?
A broad, inclusive legalization for undocumented immigrants.
What’s one piece of legislation (state or national) you’d like to see defeated?
I’d like to see the four anti-affirmative action ballot initiatives (Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri) defeated, but I’m not holding my breath.
My political awakening occurred when…
When I was 17, two of my college friends tried to get me to go to a racial justice rally on campus. When I wouldn’t commit they told me that I needed to grow up. I wasn’t a girl, I was a woman, and I wasn’t a minority, I was a person of color. So I went and my whole life changed. When you need a kick in the ass, who better than your best friends to provide? I wrote about this incident in “Are Immigrants and Refugees People of Color?.” Afterward, one of those friends said she was struck by how self-righteous she was in those days, but then thought it seemed to have had a good effect on me, so maybe self-righteousness wasn’t all bad.
What do you think makes for an effective activist or political campaign? Can you name a current one that you admire?
Speed, discipline and openness to new ideas. I admire too many to pick one.
Are you involved with any interesting forms of activism? Could you tell us about any of these projects?
I respect the model of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York. I see it as a hybrid, which I believe most successful political organizations are these days. They do corporate campaigns, industry research, political education, worker training, legislative work, cooperative development and organizing of high road employers. Not all by themselves, of course, but they understand that they need a comprehensive strategy in order to get things done at scale.
How can others get involved?
Eat at Colors Restaurant in NYC, 417 Lafayette St., or call ROCNY at (212) 343.1771 to volunteer.
How do you get around (bike, public transportation, car)? Why?
I spend an hour each way getting to and from work on the subway. I don’t own a car, partly because it’s difficult in NYC, and partly because I seem to attract accidents. Better to be walking…
What local media do you depend on?
New York magazine to see what the elites are doing, and the Daily News to check in on everyone else.
What’s the best piece of advice someone gave you when you were young?
“Don’t badmouth anybody, it doesn’t make you cooler,” when I was in 6th grade. And later, when I was about 20, “Ears open, mouth shut.”
What are five things you can’t live without?
Do people count? My journal, TV, lip balm, my assistant and my family.
What’s the last, good film you saw?
What is the last, best book you have read?
I loved reading these two books one after the other: The Known World, by Edward P. Jones, and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall by M.G. Vassanji. Both are about the responsibilities of people who occupy society’s middle rungs.
Guilty television watching pleasure?
TV offers many pleasures, and I never feel guilty. “Lost,” “ER,” “The Apprentice” top the list. “Sex and the City” reruns have been great – the early years are hilarious.
What trend in popular culture do you find the most annoying?
Super skinny women and, even worse, super skinny men.
—October 8, 2008