Kamala Harris and the fallibility of identity politics

Originally published for Vox Media.


National campaigns are, first and foremost, an exercise in storytelling patterned after well-known themes — David versus Goliath, the Haves versus the Have Nots, the fearless vigilante for justice. It is rarely the case that a candidate is unintentionally placed on a presidential track of any party; it’s a path years in the making, a confluence of strategic decisions, affiliations, and opportunities for high-profile moments. Whether a candidate’s messaging holds, however, is subject to whether it tracks with its target audience.

Which brings us to Sen. Kamala Harris. Harris’s national odyssey commenced in 2012 when, as California’s attorney general, she gave a brief speech endorsing then-President Barack Obama for a second term at the Democratic National Convention. When she ran for Senate in 2016, Obama gave her an endorsement of his own. The self-ascribed “top cop” rhetoric that originally came into national parlance during her congressional race (and has been a pain in her side ever since) was quickly subsumed by a newfound reputation of “unflappable truth advocate” once she was elected and went viral for handing it to Jeff Sessions in a committee hearing. By the time she made her 2020 presidential announcement in January, she was riding on both a “nevertheless, she persisted” narrative and bona fides that harked back to the characteristics of the Democratic Party’s golden child, Obama. Harris had positioned herself as not only the most accomplished Black woman to ever run for executive office, but seemingly the most electable candidate.

In a post-Obama era, she also appeared as a close facsimile of many of the characteristics that made Michelle Obama so adored not just by Black women but women in general (she even earned Hillary Clinton’s support). And throughout the ensuing 11 months, one word anchored her campaign, officially called Kamala Harris for the People: identity.

But, ultimately, banking on identity wasn’t enough.

Kamala Harris speaks to Amos Jackson III, Executive President of the Howard University Student Association, and Mara Peoples, Executive Vice President, after announcing her presidential candidacy at her alma mater, Howard University, on January 21, 2019.

Because aside from being a Black woman and former prosecutor with ties to Obama, many still wondered: Who is Kamala Harris? Is she a “cop” or a reformist? Where did the former prosecutor stand on advocating for Black issues, especially when it came to criminal justice in the Black Lives Matter era? What were her tangible positions on health care? The debate stage, instead of serving as the platform to consolidate her message, accomplished the inverse. Save for early parries with Joe Biden on school segregation (that she later chose to partially renege on), her talking points largely coalesced around indicting the sitting president, and even provided openings for more marginal candidates such as Tulsi Gabbard to capitalize on the dissonance that undermined any attempt at progressing her campaign. Her team seemed unsure of which Democratic voters to try to court first — and weren’t successful in courting those who hadshifted further left since Obama and were no longer moved by charismatic messaging that wasn’t underpinned by clear substantive policy.

This failure to significantly shift accordingly rendered itself in the polls. Despite having a fundraising war chest that rivaled former Vice President Joe Biden’s throughout the entirety of her presidential bid (granted, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have had higher fundraising numbers), Harris never polled higher than third place, falling to fourth after being surpassed by Warren and, most recently, falling to fifth due to a recent spike in Pete Buttigieg’s campaign going into Iowa.

Ultimately, underscoring her identity generated mixed results — in the waning weeks of her campaign, only 4 percent of Black voters polled identified Harris as their first choice.Butit didn’t stave off efforts to leverage the groups in which she shared kinship — Black voters, women voters, Indian American voters, and first-generation voters — to the magnitude that she could maximize the utility of “identity politics.” Which surprised many: In a world where the threat of the Trump administration looms large over our most marginalized, who seemed a better advocate than a candidate who represents those demographics that are most at risk, paired with the skills to prosecute criminals?Advertisement

Therein lies the seductive appeal of identity politics, as well as its fatal flaw: stripping the complex nuances of the individual in favor of assigning representative moral value based on a singular characteristic of a collective group. Harris is not going to engender fealty from Black voters simply because she is a Black woman, just as her career as prosecutor — which includes a contentious truancy law and her office arguing to deny early release for prisoners — wasn’t going to turn off all Black voters, either. Applying universal claims in a vacuum denies them both power and context; saying that you have the power and skill to put the current president behind bars, for example, while certainly gratifying to anxious Democratic voters, loses its teeth when you are reminded that the same skills are used to facilitate this country’s race-based mass incarceration system.

Her campaign’s ultimate decline followed a perfect tempest of several events: unremarkable performances during recent debates coming on the heels of flubs during criminal justice conversations, and declining polls going into Iowa that correlated not just with attacks from opponents in the media and the political field, but a perilous lack of financial ad-buying power. The latter, courtesy of the 24-hour 2020 presidential cycle, gave way for the revelation of the rumored months-long turmoil that had been building within the campaign, including mismanaged budgets and frustrated staffers.

When challenged on her prosecutorial record during her Senate race, Harris and her advocates pointed out that as a Black woman, “you’re held to a different standard,” a rejoinder that has resurfaced now that she has suspended her campaign. This is correct on its face, but it’s unchallenging to link the trigger of her campaign’s demise to groups that circulated viral cop jokes; history is not set in motion by a singular event. Confronting race and gender bias shouldn’t belie the fact that her record and inconsistent voice mattered to a swath of voters she was expected to attract — and she ran out of budget to work to substantively shift that perception. While identity politics tends to trade in pathological assumptions of behavior, again, Black voters or women voters are far from a non-differentiable monolith.

So when you list the demographics of the other candidates that remain — not just race and gender, but also wealth and experience — it can be tempting to view Harris dropping out as a fundamental injustice. But the calculus isn’t as simple as who remains and who does not. Harris had to choose whether or not to exit the campaign before a verdict of her viability could be rendered for her in her own home state. As such, Harris is less of a martyr to inequity than someone who made a strategic decision to regain control of the remainder of her political career, which, by all measures, should be enduring.

Ultimately, Senator Harris will be fine. And while it is understandable for her ardent advocates to lament what could have been, her $10 million in remaining funds will likely be used for preparing for the upcoming Senate reelection race or a plan to return to the presidential scene in 2024, re-energized, re-focused, and without the blemish of a formal primary loss on her record.

In every defeat there are lessons to be learned. For her largest advocates, the wound of realizing that their shared kinship was not as widespread as initially conceived may take a while to heal. But our obligations as voters demand that we hold our favored candidates accountable to the commitments they make to their constituency, and push them to understand what representation really means in 2020. This includes listening to the policies constituents want, and not only grasping but representing a new rubric of fighting for justice.

Ousman Darboe could be deported any day. His story is a common one for black immigrants.

Originally published for Vox, with photography done by Desiree Rios.


When public defender Sophia Gurulé tried to visit her client in ICE detention in June, she was hit with a roadblock: His facility in Bergen County, New Jersey, was under quarantine due to a mumps outbreak. She wouldn’t be able to talk to her client in person for the next three weeks.

For 25-year-old Ousman Darboe, daily communication with his legal representation is essential. In May, he lost his removal proceedings case in immigration court. Now, he is pending deportation to his birth country of Gambia.

While he was quarantined in a unit with little air ventilation in the middle of summer — his family a two-hour bus commute away in the Bronx — Gurulé has been fervently at work on an appeal. She is exploring all options, including sending a letter to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his release. This is the final chance she has to help keep his family together. Darboe has never held his daughter, now 17 months old, outside of a detention facility.

Like many ofthe approximately 10.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the US, Darboe came to the country as a child. He was 6 years old when his parents brought him and his three older siblings to New York in 2001, settling in the Fordham Heights neighborhood of the Bronx, one of the poorest congressional districts in the country.

Navigating life in a strict Muslim home, where he helped care for his younger siblings, was occasionally at odds with his assimilation as a kid in Fordham Heights. But Darboe worked quickly to fit in. He shed his accent and learned English. He played basketball and often kept quiet. And, much to his family’s disapproval, he sometimes cut school, often to avoid the heavy violence and policing on campus.

Portrait of Ousman Darboe smiling.
Ousman Darboe in 2017, when he was 23 years old.

Based on the color of his skin alone, it’s not a surprise that Darboe went on to face numerous interactions with law enforcement as a teenager and young adult — a series of stops, alleged misidentifications, and arrests that led him to be locked up in Bergen County.

According to the Bureau of Justice of Statistics, black and Latinx residents are more likely to be stopped by police than white residents, and when stopped, police are twice as likely to threaten or use force against them. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, these statistics are even starker in New York City: Black and Latinx people were the targets of four out of every five reported stops between 2014 and 2017, and black and Latinx people were more likely to have force used against them.

But as many immigrant justice advocates will tell you, if being black makes you a police target, then being black and undocumented in a poor neighborhood will make you vulnerable to surveillance, punishment, and exile. Darboe wasn’t born of privileged social class or with means to a prestigious education; he did not fit the “exceptional immigrant” model preferred by US immigration policy. The odds of Darboe living not only a free life, but any life at all in this country, were stacked against him from the moment he stepped on US soil.

Darboe has instead found himself inwhat criminal justice reform activists call the prison-to-deportation pipeline, a coded system that works to funnel black and Latinx immigrants from the criminal court system into Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) custody, to the immigration court system, and ultimately back to their nations of birth — with very little recourse or space for adjudication.

For example, low-level crimes such as marijuana possession are lumped into the offense of “drug trafficking” in immigration court — even if it’s recognized as a misdemeanor in the criminal courts — mandating automatic deportation without any leeway for a judge to consider an individual’s circumstances, according to Human Rights Watch. As a result of this one-size-fits-all policy, deportations over drug convictions of any sort increased 43 percent from 2007 to 2012.

Peel back the numbers further, and black immigrants make up a disproportionate amount of criminal-based deportations. According to the advocacy group Black Alliance for Just Immigration, which reviewed data on immigrants from African and Caribbean countries from the Department of Homeland Security Yearbook and the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, 76 percent of black immigrants are deported on criminal grounds, compared to 45 percent of all immigrants. Despite making up only 7.2 percent of the noncitizen population in the US, more than 20 percent of people facing deportation on criminal grounds are black.

“There’s a particular intersection of vulnerability — immigrants in general are vulnerable, and there’s often poverty and racial aspects to their vulnerability as well,” said Jodi Ziesemer, director of the Immigrant Protection Unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive free legal services and advocacy. “Black and undocumented immigrants are at particular risk because they’re targeted racially by a lot of our institutions … while being also targeted for ICE and enforcement actions.”

As a young quiet kid, Darboe would have never guessed that his existence in the US — and in the Bronx in particular — would put him on a trajectory of altercations with law enforcement, eventual incarceration, and possible deportation. Darboe’s sister Adama said her brother once told her, “I came to this country thinking it would be better for me, but they’re actually against me.”

Webster Avenue in the Fordham Heights neighborhood of the Bronx.
Webster Avenue in the Fordham Heights neighborhood of the Bronx. It was here where Darboe, at age 16, was arrested and charged with marijuana possession after being stopped and frisked by police.

A path that began with police targeting

Darboe’s first interaction with police came at age 16: On June 25, 2010, he was falsely accused of stealing headphones at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Jerome Park neighborhood of the Bronx. Situated just around the corner from the famed specialized high school Bronx High School of Science, DeWitt has a history of police patrolling the hallways and metal detectors that caused hour-long delays, a system that left students feeling “like inmates,” according to a 2005 New York Times report. It was a situation so toxic that more than 1,500 students marched over to the Department of Education at the beginning of the school year.

When Darboe was at the school five years later, not much had changed. He told the court earlier this year that there were a lot of gang wars, fights, and cuttings. “DeWitt Clinton was a harsh place to go to school, because most of the time there’s gang wars — there’s weapons being found at school,” Darboe testified. “Basically nobody went to class.” Gurulé says Darboe witnessed police being given free rein to stroll the school, on top of the standard school security that already existed on campus. (DeWitt Clinton High School has not responded to Vox’s request for comment).

DeWitt Clinton High School in the Jerome Park neighborhood of the Bronx. Darboe’s first encounter with police was as a student on campus.

His eldest sister, Adama, in contrast, went to Marble Hill High School for International Studies, a smaller school with an above-average reputation and an emphasis on dedicating resources to college preparation. Adama tells Vox these schooling differences significantly impacted the siblings’ trajectories, placing Darboe in an environment that put him under police scrutiny, and with a friend group that grew accustomed to being viewed as criminals.

Though Darboe was quickly found not to have stolen the headphones and his case was dismissed, the incident would prove to be the first in a long string of interactions with police. According to court documents, Darboe said that while the kids in Fordham Heights were “not the best of influences,” they would often be “attacked by the police officers” because the neighborhood was simply known to be violent.

Broken windows” policing was common in neighborhoods with large black and Latinx immigrant populations such as Darboe’s area of the Bronx. By focusing on low-level crimes in so-called unkempt neighborhoods — with vandalism, loitering, and drug offenses — police departments theorized they could prevent bigger crimes from happening there. In the 1990s, police in cities like New York took this practice one step further and instead of waiting for people to commit misdemeanors, they enacted “stop-and-frisk” — stopping, questioning, and frisking anyone who looked suspicious.

According to a 2013 study by the Vera Institute of Justiceat least half of all recorded stops by police in New York City involved people between the ages of 13 and 25, and more than 40 percent of young people who’ve been stopped said they have been stopped nine times or more — with nearly half reporting that threats or physical violence were used against them. Broken windows and stop-and-frisk policing created an environment where kids from certain neighborhoods, and often of a certain skin color, were repeatedly profiled as criminals. In fact, in 2013, a US district judge in New York ruled stop-and-frisk unconstitutional and ordered police to stop the practice in the Bronx specifically, because of the way it targeted young black and Latinx men.

DESPITE MAKING UP ONLY 7.2 PERCENT OF THE NONCITIZEN POPULATION IN THE US, MORE THAN 1 OUT OF EVERY 5 PEOPLE FACING DEPORTATION ON CRIMINAL GROUNDS IS BLACK.

But that ruling — which outlawed stop-and-frisk but didn’t put an end to broken windows policing — came several years after Darboe was already caught up in the system.

In October 2010, four months after being falsely accused of stealing the headphones, Darboe was fingered for stealing a purse and was adjudicated as a youthful offender. When asked in court why he stole it, Darboe said that he didn’t have any school supplies, or a book bag, and he couldn’t ask his parents because he knew they didn’t have the money. “I felt, I felt bad because I felt like I had to take [a] drastic measure to get the stuff that I needed,” he said.

Three months later, in the following January, he was stopped and frisked on Webster Avenue — just down the block from his childhood home —and charged with marijuana possession, but was only found guilty of disorderly conduct. And in March 2012, he was charged for cellphone theft, which landed him in Rikers Island — a jail complex infamous for its excessive use of violence in inmate discipline — as a violation of his previous youthful offender agreement over the purse theft.

During his time at Rikers, having just turned 18 and awaiting his cellphone theft hearing, Darboe spent nearly 10 months total in solitary confinement for fighting, and five of those months he says he was not even aware he was able to step outside for an hour a day and get fresh air.

When he was finally sentenced in July 2013, Darboe was sent to Greene Correctional Facility in upstate New York to serve time for both petty theft charges; nine months later, he was released on parole — meaning that he spent more time in pre-trial detention awaiting his sentencing than his actual sentence. His disappearance was so abrupt that his longtime friend from high school, Lashalle Poston, now his wife, initially thought he had left the city. “At first I thought, African parents, when they get in trouble, they send their kids to Africa,” Poston tells Vox. “He just disappeared.”

Darboe’s wife, Lashalle Poston.
Darboe’s wife, Lashalle Poston.
Darboe’s immigration attorney, Sophia Gurulé.
Darboe’s attorney, Sophia Gurulé.

Despite having spent the latter half of his teen years being in and out of facilities, a youth offender record is not a criminal record; it is automatically sealed and does not have to be reported as a criminal conviction. “It wouldn’t bar him from applying for things,” Gurulé said, referring to documentation that wouldn’t leave him vulnerable to deportation. “A judge can be, ‘I see you got arrested for doing that and I don’t like that, that makes me think you’re a bad person,’ but it doesn’t bar him for applying.”

So upon his release in 2014, at age 20, Darboe took steps to make a fresh start. He moved back in with his parents; started dating Poston, who served as his support system during his incarceration; and began attending Getting Out and Staying Out, a Rikers reentry program for young adult men.

But despite his best intentions, staying out would prove to be not so easy.

The pipeline from juvenile to immigration court

In September 2014, less than six months after Darboe’s release, a neighbor in his parents’ building was walking when she had her gold chains robbed from her neck. Given that he was recently paroled, Darboe was identified as a person of interest by the NYPD. Darboe says on the day of the incident he was at Getting Out and Staying Out (the organization was only able to confirm his regular participation but not his specific whereabouts that day, according to court documents).

When police searched his belongings, they were unable to find any items that tied him to the description given by the neighbor. However, the victim identified him in a police lineup, both recognizing him as a resident in the building and perceiving him to be the assailant: “She thinks that he did it because it was a ‘big black man,’” Adama says, “and [that’s who] Ousman was.”

Darboe was charged with multiple offenses — three counts of robbery plus assault, criminal possession of stolen property, and harassment. He was now considered an adult. At his arraignment, he entered an initial plea of not guilty and was released on bail after 60 days.

But his release was turbulent: He had multiple police interactions for a variety of unrelated charges, such as gun possession and possession of a false check, both of which were dismissed (they were committed by an associate of his, according to court documents). He then landed back in Rikers because the robbery charges were a violation of his parole. While in jail, he was accused of illegally possessing a razor, an offense of which he was acquitted.

Worn down from being in and out of detainment and solitary confinement — and fearful that the NYPD, in its persistence to obtain evidence, would generate a second witness willing to corroborate the alleged robbery story to better their own circumstances — Darboe made an about-face in February 2017 and took a plea deal of one count of felony robbery for time served. According to court documents, Darboe said he took the deal because he was disappointed in himself — not because he had committed the crime, which he maintains he did not, but because of his past. “I had to blame myself for my previous cases, because if I would have never caught [charges in] those previous robberies, I would have never been a target for [the gold chains] robbery.”

While pleading under duress is a common scenario for black men with extended stays in pre-trial detention, doing so has significant implications for immigrants.

Five months later, Darboe was at his parents’ apartment in their new Bronx neighborhood of Kingsbridge when ICE knocked on the door. Even though his recent case dismissals meant he was supposedly no longer under threat of incarceration, ICE officers gained entry to the apartment saying they were police, under the pretense of having a warrant for someone else in the neighborhood, says Gurulé. This tactic is reportedly used by some agents to get immigrants to let them in a residence: ICE officers announce that they’re law enforcement and that they have a “warrant,” even though the warrant is only administrative and not signed by a judge.

Once inside, agents proceed to make arrests after they validate that the person in the home is the same person who may be already flagged on their watchlist as a target, with a particular emphasis on undocumented persons. (ICE has not responded to Vox’s request for comment on its arrest or warrant process, or Darboe specifically, but an ICE spokesman denied to Documented in 2018 that they pose as local law enforcement; however, he said ICE “may use the universally recognized ‘POLICE’ when initially making contact with someone during a field operation.”)

The Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx.
The corner in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx where Darboe was arrested by ICE agents in 2017.

This is the kind of tactic advocates and lawyers warned immigrants to guard against during the recent ICE raids announced by the Trump administration. But Darboe didn’t know that the warrant wasn’t signed by a judge, and that he was thus protected by the Fourth Amendment from having to open the door. He was quickly taken away by ICE agents to the Hudson County Detention Center in New Jersey.

Darboe was detained on July 31, 2017 — the same day he was scheduled to have his forged check charge dismissed. A handful of days later, his girlfriend Poston discovered she was pregnant with their first child — a girl, Sanai, to be born the following April. She wouldn’t be ableto visit Darboe for four months.

Outside of transferring facilities to Bergen County, Darboe has not left ICE custodysince July 2017, having been denied bond after an extended delay due to “dangerousness,” according to a judge in the NYC immigration court. This is despite having only one adult conviction and significant roots in the city: He has eight siblings and parents who, at this point, are all legal permanent residents or have birthright citizenship. He also married Poston in Hudson County Detention in December 2017.

Poston’s initial I-130 petition, the first step to authenticate and establish a record of marriage in the visa application process, was denied by the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), stating that the couple did not have joint assets such as property or bank accounts, and therefore the marriage was possibly fraudulent. (When asked for comment, USCIS told Vox it doesn’t comment on specific cases.)

“They tried to tell me that we didn’t submit enough evidence, that my relationship wasn’t real,” Poston tells Vox. “Me pushing out a kid in labor for 29 hours wasn’t enough?”

While the decision was ultimately overturned on appeal, Gurulé points out that the logic behind the authentication is classist. She notes that in tandem with ICE, the USCIS “has become a form of law enforcement in their own way,” expanding from an organization intended to manage benefits and services for immigrants to an investigation service of its own.

The delays in the spousal visa process extended Darboe’s detention by ICE for another year. In the meantime, Poston has navigated pregnancy and early motherhood alone.

Laws make the case for the “exceptional immigrant” — but don’t account for the systemic hardships immigrants face

In 1996, the Clinton administration signed into law two key pieces of legislation: the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which both served to retroactively tie immigration status to criminalization. Congress expanded what fell under its “aggravated felonies” classification when it came to deportable offenses, and standard deportation protocol could now be circumvented for “fast-track” removal proceedings. (Under the Trump administration, for example, an undocumented immigrant who cannot prove over two years of residency is eligible for “fast-track” proceedings.)

Deportable offenses — previously, murder, drugs, and firearms trafficking — now included nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors, such as theft, filing a false tax return, illegal entry in and of itself, or failing to appear in court. During the Bush administration, the largest increases in deportations were of undocumented immigrants convicted of traffic violations: 43,000 total during his last five years in office.

Even in the Obama era, immigration detention and deportations rates continued to rise astronomically: From2009 to 2015, the administration engaged in over 1 million “interior” removals — excluding those who were apprehended while attempting to cross the border — a rate that was nearly double that of the prior administration. According to a New York Times’ analysis of internal government records, two-thirds of the deportation cases during the Obama administration involved immigrants who were either convicted of minor infractions or had not yet been convicted of a crime.

Obama also played into the “good vs. bad immigrant” schism that has helped fuel hostility toward immigrants in this country: His infamous “Felons, not Families” speech kicking off the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program failed to reconcile immigration policy with the systemic surveilling and incarceration issues that plague people of color; he implied there is no scenario in which a person selected for deportation could be both a felon and part of a family.

President Obama meets with young immigrants, known as DREAMers.
President Obama meets with young immigrants, known as DREAMers, in the Oval Office of the White House, on February 4, 2015.

The “exceptional immigrant” paradigm was further reinforced by immigration reform that only emphasized pathways to citizenship for young immigrants who exhibit “good moral character.” Policies like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals established a temporary deferred status via a rubric that is difficult for many young immigrants to meet: The college-bound DREAMer, or undocumented immigrant in the armed services with a spotless police record, doesn’t represent the lived reality of many young immigrants. According to the United States Department of Education, 54 percent of undocumented youth earn a high school diploma, and only 5 to 10 percent of undocumented high school graduates enroll in a higher education institution — far fewer successfully graduate with a degree.

“A spotlight on ‘exceptional’ black immigrants often erases and makes invisible the lived experience of black immigrants who experience police brutality, state surveillance, poverty, and workplace discrimination, among other things,” says Nekessa Opoti, a communications strategist at the UndocuBlack Network, an advocacy organization comprised of black immigrants.

Protestors march against the news that the Obama administration plans to forcefully carry out deportations.
Protesters in Washington, DC, after the Obama administration announced its deportation plans for undocumented immigrants in 2015.

This is a plight that Darboe knows very well: He was not a perfect student. His case does not make for an exceptional immigrant soundbite. It’s easy to look at Darboe’s rap sheet and dismiss him as someone who has continually erred, particularly as a teen, and is therefore not entitled to sympathy.

This is the fundamental shortcoming of the emphasis on “model minority” narratives: They lack space for the acceptance of a world in which an immigrant lived a “regular” life, especially one that’s subject to heavy police surveillance. Attending an over-policed high school where students were constantly under suspicion, living in a neighborhood where the color of his skin was enough for police to stop him, Darboe had little chance of being seen as a model citizen.

He certainly wouldn’t be given much of a chance to grow up and turn his life around; he wouldn’t even be seen as worthy of such an opportunity.

His daughter, he said in immigration court earlier this year, “helps me feel that I got something to fight for, that I got something to go to, that … I really got to stop doing what I was doing my previous years as a teenager. Now I got to mature, not only for me, but only to be a better example for my daughter.”

Darboe’s youthful offenses — pilfering a cellphone and a purse as a teenager — are far from the actions of MS-13 villains trotted out by the Trump administration to justify strict immigration policy. But such indiscretions are much more common reasons for being removed from this country than any salacious violence.

Even sanctuary cities are limited in protecting immigrants from ICE

Even when there are laws in place to ostensibly help immigrants understand the criminal court process, they can fail. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Padilla v. Kentucky that criminal defenders must ask their clients about their immigration status so they can inform them of the possible deportation consequences of a guilty plea before sentencing.

“That should happen,” Ziesemer says. But because courts are often backed up and public defenders often have massive caseloads, “I think there’s a lot of pressure on both ends that make that not a perfect system and … are not super protective of due process rights,” she says.

This gap in due process even happens in places like New York City, which have reputations as “sanctuary cities” and are supposed to limit their cooperation with ICE. But as the Intercept reports, ICE has evaded sanctuary rules by using NYPD fingerprint records to send letters to immigrants arrested — usually for low-level misdemeanor offenses — asking them to come into the agency’s Manhattan offices. In the cases of two immigrants who complied and went down to the office — neither of whom had open removal orders against them or criminal convictions — both were detained.

As explained by Albert Saint Jean, the New York organizer for Black Alliance for Just Immigration, no matter how noncompliant a city administration vows to be, broken windows policing serves as a feeder system for ICE.

“If you’re doing heavy policing in black neighborhoods in NYC, guess what? Undocumented people live in those neighborhoods too. When you’re policing heavily black and brown communities, that’s where the bulk of our immigrant community and undocumented community live. So in essence, every time these people get fingerprinted, every time these things happen … ICE gets notified.”

Community activist Dennis Flores patrols his neighborhood for ICE raids.
A community activist patrols the heavily Mexican immigrant neighborhood of Sunset Park in Brooklyn, New York, for police harassment and ICE raids in 2017.

Subway fare evasion is one of the top reasons that both Ziesemer and Saint Jean say their New York clients have been flagged for immigration purposes. In 2018, 90 percent of those arrested for this crime were reported to be people of color. This will only continue with Gov. Cuomo’s announced plan to expand the police force dedicated to fare evasion from 30 cops at 15 key New York City stations to 500 officers across 100 stations and bus stops.

Ziesemer says she has a client who is Garifuna from Honduras who got ticketed for having an open container in the Bronx. “If he wasn’t an immigrant, he would have paid a small fine and that would have been the end of it,” she says. “But because that got routed into the immigration system, he got picked up and has been detained for over six months.”

Detained immigrants have little recourse against deportation

When immigrants are detained, Ziesemer says, “there’s no obligation for ICE to bring them in front of a court, for them to seek bond. There’s no appointed attorney, there’s very little recourse to getting out of detention on a sort of pre-trial basis.” It’s called “civil detention,” she says, “but in reality, these people in Bergen County and all these other jails, they’re literally housed alongside people who have been convicted of crimes. Immigrants really do fall down a black hole when they’re detained.”

Some detained immigrants are allowed video testimony, which still isn’t standing before a judge and advocating for their own character. This has increasingly become the default for immigration courts around the country, according to Gurulé, and organizations have been suing over the violation of people’s due process.

ICE agents conduct an arrest.
ICE agents arrest a man in a 2017 raid in a photo released by the agency. Under President Trump, ICE enforcement has been on the rise.

One exception to the “black hole” norm was the high-profile detention of black immigrant 21 Savage — born Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph — in February. The rapper was detained by Atlanta ICE agents days after criticizing the agency on The Tonight Show. While ICE claimed Savage was an “unlawfully present United Kingdom national” who came to the US as a teen and overstayed his visa, he had been living in Atlanta since he was seven. The incident was a shocking moment for many people, highlighting the power of ICE, and disrupting the image for many of what an undocumented immigrant could look like — black and famous.

Fortunately for 21 Savage, he had hefty legal support and the backing of Jay-Z to help prevent being buried in ICE’s system. However, most black immigrants do not have access to the resources afforded to celebrities. In Darboe’s case, his access to legal representation was courtesy of a New York City Council-funded initiative to protect low-income immigrants facing deportation called the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, of which Gurulé’s firm, the Bronx Defenders, is a part.

“I would say more than half the asylum cases that I’ve gone for, they were people that you could see a pattern of police harassment,” says Saint Jean of his work as an organizer for Black Alliance for Just Immigration in NYC. “And the judges don’t look at it from that context. They look at it as ‘this person is a troublemaker.’”

Countless immigration activists do the work of trying to place these clients with proper legal representation, which can sometimes feel nearly impossible, with lawyers wanting to get nowhere near immigration cases that involve rap sheets. In Darboe’s case, when Poston testified that her husband had grown past his youth offenses, the prosecutor replied, “talk is cheap,” asking Poston, “What if he gets violent with you or your child?” even though Darboe has no record of violent offenses.

“[I think the judge] feels like, all black women go through that, and you’ll just be one more, and it’s fine … The system is helping you, you don’t need no other help from no man,” says Poston. “The system is actually not that goddamn easy.”

Poston has had to experience this firsthand. In the time that she has worked to advocate for her husband, obtaining Gurulé as his public defender, and attending all his necessary court dates, she temporarily lost a job and has settled into a shelter with their daughter.

Attorney Sophia Gurulé with Ousman’s wife, Lashalle Poston.
Gurulé (left) and Poston. “No empathy, compassion, no sense of justice, nothing,” Gurulé says of immigration judges when they preside over cases like Darboe’s.

“These judges see his kind of contact with the criminal legal system, and all reason and empathy flies out the door,” Gurulé says of her client Darboe. “No empathy, compassion, no sense of justice, nothing.”

If Darboe is deported, he will be excised from his community, family, and daughter, whom he may never see grow up. His emotional and mental health would also likely take a significant hit; deportees often suffer from depression and social isolation. Then there is Gambia, where the government is still working to stabilize society after a 20-year regime of human rights abuses left the country with high unemployment rates and in bankruptcy.

In the meantime, Darboe continues to wait. The mumps outbreak in Bergen County is over, and his appeal date is scheduled for October 3. He is relying on his Islamic faith to keep his spirit strong. He and his family know, though, that they must brace for the worst. After his two years in detention, they must come to terms with what has been the fate of many undocumented immigrants before him.

Representation vs. Exploitation? Halima Aden’s ‘Sports Illustrated’ Hijab And Burkini Spread Sparks Debate Around Racial Capitalism

Originally published as a feature for BET Style.

On May 8, the 2019 issue of Sport Illustrated’s Annual Swimsuit Edition will hit newsstands everywhere, featuring a watershed moment— the first Muslim hijabi, a Black Somali-American woman, to be featured as a model, clad in illuminating burkinis in Watamu Beach, a day’s travel from the Kakuma refugee camp where she spent the earliest years of her life.

In the announcement of Halima Aden’s upcoming photos, editor MJ Day emphasized how SI Swimsuit reflected the progressiveness of the fashion industry and society at large:

“We both know that women are so often perceived to be one way or one thing based on how they look or what they wear. Whether you feel your most beautiful and confident in a burkini or a bikini, YOU ARE WORTHY.”

It’s a curious statement, considering that it frames the discussion around litigating the attractiveness of being fully covered as opposed to the inherent Islamophobia that can come with being visibly present in hijab or burkini. It also comes less than a month after fellow Somali hijabi and Minnesota resident Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who herself lobbied to allow hijabs in Congress, came under direct fire from the president of the United States, who used his Twitter account to spread a doctored video implying that Rep. Omar was dismissive of the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers to a following of over 60 million accounts, directly leading to an increase in death threats made against her.

Therein lies the walking balancing act that has played out in the public sphere: fashion brands as high end as Gucci and Versace to the Gap and H&M have made a recent and large pivot to embrace modest culture in U.S. markets, and to significant returns — the positive impact of the inclusion of a long-ignored demographic comes with access to a rapidly increasing portion of spending power in an industry where brick and mortar revenue is under threat, to the tune of $170 billion. But while that representation is happening, the climate for Muslims in America remains stagnant, with Muslims still subject to surveillance, proposed travel bans and various forms of tacit Islamophobia enmeshed in American social norms.

This dialogue is not new to the industry — Sports Illustrated faced similar discourse when Ashley Graham received the Swimsuit Edition cover in 2016, raising the debate as to the goals and objectives of plus-size inclusion in the fashion industry and how it fit into body-positivity movements and helped tackle fatphobia as a whole. A term that University of Denver law professor Nancy Leong coined, racial capitalism speaks to the overall trend of corporations commodifying identity to attain social and economic value, which can ultimately lead to feelings of exploitation absent feeling like there is any space to express their own agency.

From Aden’s perspective, she has been hands on with trying to ensure that all of her campaigns go hand in hand with highlighting the issues she champions, which is, as she told writer Najma Sharif for a profile in Paper Magazine, “encourag[ing] girls to dream big.” That objective has carried through to her Sports Illustrated shoot, with this statement she gave to BET exclusively:

“Being featured in this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue will have such a great impact on women and young girls who have never seen someone who look like them represented in the public eye. SI Swimsuit has been at the forefront of changing the narrative and conversation on social issues and preconceived notions. I’m hoping this specific feature will open doors up for my Somali community, Muslim community, refugee community and any other community that can relate to being different.

“This feature is proving that a fully covered hijab-wearing model can confidently stand alongside a beautiful woman in a revealing bikini and together they can celebrate one another, cheer each other on, and champion each other’s successes. It’s also putting the burkini on the map, which is imperative for young Muslim girls.”


I’m happy to see Halima book the jobs that she wants and what that might mean for other Muslim women and people who have never seen a girl in a burkini before. It still makes me question the motives of these brands that are suddenly so interested in their representation stats in 2019.

Ultimately, can the impact of representation supersede the corporatization of identity? Perhaps not completely, but at the very least it should maximize its impact by allowing the hijabis selected to champion their respective brands as free of a platform as possible to speak on the areas specific to their identity, beyond fashion representation, without censorship, until rhetoric around these campaigns will have reached beyond the notches of having accomplished all of these firsts.

While a brand can send out a congratulatory statement about them recognizing their first hijabi for her undeniable skill and talent as a model, a Muslim woman may be trying to wear that same burkini someplace far away from the glaring lights of a photographers’ lens — and in today’s society, that is still a much more precarious choice than it should have any business being.

In Defense of Cancel Culture

Originally published for Broadly as part of my “Extremely Online” monthly column.

When comedian Jess Hilarious (born Jessica Moore) received backlash on her fearful reaction to four Sikh people boarding her flight, her initial response was dismissive: “If I’m scared, I’m scared. Fuck y’all. Fuck how y’all feel.” To the thousands of people who watched, the fear she felt was irrelevant—responding with accusing her of being xenophobic, Islamophobic, “ignorant,” and insensitive to an already marginalized group of approximately 500,000 people domestically.

Shortly after, as the displeasure from her fan base mounted, Jess returned to her Instagram account where she built her fanbase of 4.4 million followers and provided a tearful four-minute apology. The comedian acknowledged the harm in her racial profiling and asking her fans to “bear with me, I’m still growing” and that she “didn’t understand the power that [she] had,” committing to donate $15K to the families of victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings, and sharing the link for her fans to donate as well.

Understandably, there are people who question Moore’s attempt to make amends; given that her initial response was so disparaging, a logical conclusion would be that the plaintiveness behind her latest effort was a matter of self preservation. Fear is a large motivator, especially in the entertainment industry, where the 24-hour news cycle can follow with losing opportunities and further support—commonly colloquialized as being “canceled”—as opposed to true remorse and accountability for the harms committed.

Rationale aside, however, how did Jess get this initial response so wrong in the first place?

“Part of her misstep was failing to realize that part of why she has had recent success is, in part, the result of an allied effort to support Black and WOC comedians by Black women and Black queers,” communications strategist Camonghne Felix tells Broadly. “Those folks are largely anti-homophobia and anti-Islamophobia—and that belief system dictates who they support.”

The moral rubrics that celebrities and public figures are bound to remain in good standing when they correlate to the target audience that is the lynchpin of their support. That may align with a proper code of ethics, but not always: Several PR strategists note President Donald Trump’s ability to inoculate himself from being rebuked for his repeated immoralities show that his target base strongly supports him despite national disapproval ratings staying relatively steady at around 50 percent. A “cancelation” by any aggrieved group is, in essence, largely a calculus of diminishing returns of a public figure’s goodwill to the community that they are beholden to.

Linguist and author of Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology Edwin Battistella believes that the reason initial apologies for offensive actions fall short, are largely guided by the margins of self-interest: “It’s hard for people to get it right on the first try” he tells Broadly.. “In part it’s people who want to see if they can get away with a lesser offense; if they can sort of say ‘I was misunderstood’ or ‘I was just kidding’ or ‘This is a private matter, let’s move on,’ and if people accept those sorts of apologies that just kind of encourages more of that. So it’s good when groups and individuals push back and say ‘This isn’t the apology we were hoping to see. This apology says nothing.’”

This act of public shaming can seem overwrought at times, especially in the social-media driven news cycle in which scandals change monthly, if not weekly. But in an online space that can be increasingly dictated by active fan bases who create avenues for these figures to move past the bruise to their own political capital, without truly confronting the value systems of the people whose support they rely on, it remains an effective tool. Without this construct, for example, it is conceivable that Kevin Hart’s end-run campaign to return as an Oscars host—after old homophobic tweets were resurrected—by proxy absolution from his celebrity friends, may have worked. As Felix notes, “cancellation isn’t personal but a way for marginalized communities to publicly assert their value systems through pop culture.”

Considering the valid skepticism of the hollow apology statements, what are the key elements evoking authenticity?

“[The person] has to really name the harm that was done,” Battistella points out. “The person has to say what they did wrong and why it’s wrong. The other thing is it needs to say what’s going to be different in the future…with celebrities you don’t see them really doing that, and if you do it’s a short-term thing.”

Take the example of Doja Cat, who continuously failed to grasp the ethics of where she had erred when it was exposed that she had repeatedly used homophobic slurs on social media years before she become a recognized artist. The 23-year-old initially attempted to clear her name and assert her moral standing while repeatedly using the harmful slur in context. When that inevitably backfired, she regrouped and returned with a statement that was better, but still used distancing language: “I’m sorry for anyone I’ve offended.” By the time she landed on syntax that was concise, sincere, and held accountability without excusing herself, there were already diminishing returns due to the series of unforced errors prompted by her inability to reconcile why her fanbase was challenging her.

“Rounds of apologies fail because rarely do they address an understanding of value systems,” Felix explains. “Saying ‘I’m sorry I said this, I promise I’m not racist’ makes no sense to us because we know that saying something racist makes you racist. Apologies that acknowledge structural discrimination and a commitment to unlearning racism, homophobia, etc. do better because it highlights systems, which is what we are all actually fighting against.”

To that end, when your brand becomes indelibly tied to apologies, such as Lena Dunham, the routine of putting out a new set of regrets starts to seem increasingly performative and indicative of a lack of growth alongside the belief systems of their target demographics.

The other end of the spectrum is just as undesirable, as Battistella points out: “Do you remember the whole John Wayne movie line, ‘Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness?’” he asks. “In the movie they were actually using it kind of ironically, but I think people have taken that literally—and now [some] people feel like if you do something wrong and you’re held accountable for it by others, it’s somehow insulting or a sign of their own victimhood.”

What’s important to consider is that these social media callouts are, often, the only space for the general public to hold public figures accountable—but even then, that authority is finite. As PR sources point out, the “canceled” are always allowed re-entry into their respective niches in due time (read: Aziz Ansari), with the timeline dependent on the grievousness of the allegations, industry standards, expectations, and societal rhythms. One doesn’t need to look any further than Mel Gibson’s nomination for Best Director and attendance at the 2017 Academy Awards, years after his leaked anti-Semitic rant during a 2006 DUI arrest and subsequent abusive and racist voicemail to his ex-girlfriend, as proof positive of this fact.

It’s inevitable that redemption will happen for the canceled. But in that space before the comeback, the best tool remains for the court of public opinion to demand apologies and utilize social media for accountability to set a rubric for engagement, for the future people in entertainment who do care about the communities that consume their content.

As it stands, Jess Hilarious has yet to post a link up on her Instagram for her fans to donate to the families of the Christchurch victims as she had committed. While that by no means casts her entire apology into doubt, it should be noted that sincerity goes beyond rhetoric; if promises are made to address large-scale controversies but left behind as soon as the social media fervor quells, then that is merely lip service that may fall under the radar at present—but will manage to rear its ugly head at the point of the next misstep.

While redemption is inevitable for the rich and famous, there is a difference between it coming at the hands of the ruling class as opposed fans, who want nothing more than to enjoy their work.

“How else do we, the public, [who are] largely powerless in the everyday execution of systems of value, moderate society without something like cancel culture?,” Felix asks. Adding, “Where we can point out in real time the attitudes that perpetuate violence and call them out? That said, does cancel culture work? I don’t know, but it’s what we have. I think it helps mobilize people and direct intentions toward better legislative possibilities.”

Patricia Okoumou and the Dual Threat to Black Immigrants

Originally published for the Intelligencer at NYMag.

When New York–based activists Rise and Resist planned to use Independence Day to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies, their objective was simple: to unfurl a banner declaring “Abolish ICE” on Liberty Island. Patricia Okoumou, however, took it further, risking life, limb, and liberty in free-climbing the 100-foot-tall pedestal base of the Statue of Liberty and lying at its feet. During the three-hour standoff, she repurposed her shirt into a flag of its own, defiantly displaying the call to action to “Rise and Resist.”

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Donald Trump’s Pick for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Could Harm People of Color

Originally published on  Teen Vogue.

When I was in the fifth grade, my mother, infant brother, and I settled in the Colonial Houses Projects in Harlem (now named the Ralph Rangel Houses).

The first year was rough. After a year-and-a-half of transition — two weeks in a homeless shelter in the South Bronx, followed by a few months in a temporary living motel and a transitional housing facility — we had returned to Harlem with not much more than the clothes on our backs. I slept on an air mattress next to my infant brother for six weeks until we could scrounge enough money for a bed on layaway. The elevators and staircases consistently smelled like urine. The facilities were poorly maintained — poor trash pickup in front of the building contributed to rodents of all kinds, no matter how diligent my mother was about keeping our space tidy. The violence, while intermittent, was enough to have my mom worried about me coming home off the train after dark.

Despite all that, we had a home, and that meant the world to us. I got to invite friends over without having their parents sign them in with government ID. My mother had a full kitchen to cook in. I taught my little brother how to play basketball in Rucker Park just down the road, and I no longer had to wake up before the sun rose for a 90-minute commute to school.

Now, almost two decades after we originally moved in, much has changed about Harlem, but the frailties of public housing, run by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), are still plagued by many of the same problems. These buildings remain overbooked and underfunded, with a waiting list in the thousands. Many buildings are still not properly up to code, with serious health and safety hazards — consistent heat and hot water issues, unsafe elevators, and lead paint just scratch the surface of infrastructure problems that predate my family’s arrival and continue to persist. And while I may no longer reside there, my mother still calls the beleaguered public housing system home, along with approximately 400,000 other New York City residents, of whom 90% are black and Hispanic.

If Dr. Ben Carson is confirmed by the Republican Senate majority as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), he will be responsible for coordinating and streamlining strategic efforts for affordable housing and community renewal nationwide, a domain which NYCHA falls directly under (as of 2016, it was estimated that around 85% of NYCHA’s Housing Preservation and Development budget fell under federal assistance from HUD). As a result, Carson and his team will be accountable for maintaining and rejuvenating a rapidly deteriorating ecosystem of half-century-old buildings that serve as a lynchpin for a significant number of New Yorkers of color, my mother included.

Not only are the buildings deteriorating and increasingly unsafe, but the funding is rapidly depleting. NYCHA is facing debt in the tens of millions, with federal funding for housing having been slashed by $24 billion nationwide in 2013 by Congress. Efforts by New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio to increase development of affordable housing and tackle the hundreds of thousands of applicants on the waiting list has come at a cost; initiatives to acquire capital have included controversially selling off NYCHA-owned property to the highest bidder in an attempt to level off the rapidly increasing price points of New York’s neighborhoods with the largest populations of lower-income blacks and Hispanics. The erosion of this network would mean the displacement of entire communities, with nowhere to go and no places to afford in a city where the median rent is approximately $3,000 a month. The state of affordable low-income housing in New York is in disrepair and accelerating decline, and Ben Carson — a man with no city planning, urban development, or fiscal policy experience — will, if confirmed, be the one to lead us through it all.

It goes without saying that Carson faces an uphill climb; his seemingly severe lack of qualifications notwithstanding, any person slated to inherit the role would be faced with the quandary of managing a cash-strapped bureaucracy that directly affects millions of lives nationwide. In the face of our ever-present reality, the concern I have for my family and for thousands of others in the city I call home has increased; how can we make sure that a man whose only association to public housing to date has been his team inaccurately claiming that he grew up in a public facility sufficiently understand and address the needs of hundreds of thousands of lives of low-income people of color?

Carson has been noted as saying that “it is not the government’s job” to take care of our neediest populations — a jarring statement coming from someone poised to run a $47 billion agency dedicated to Fair Housing. Instead he has identified the solution to systemic poverty to be rooted in organic community initiatives instead of relying on government assistance, stating that “we the people have the responsibility to take care of the indigent in our society…the government started getting involved in everything…how did that work out? You know, $19 trillion later, 10 times more people on food stamps, more poverty, more welfare, broken homes, out-of-wedlock births, crime, incarceration. Everything is not only worse, it’s much worse,” according to CNN. He further contextualized his ideology with an anecdote: “In the old days of America when communities were separated by hundreds of miles, why were they able to thrive? Because if it was harvest time and the farmer was up in the tree picking apples and fell down and broke his leg, everybody pitched in and harvested his crops for him. If somebody got killed by a bear, everybody took care of their family.” This is all anchored by Carson’s belief that HUD and the federal government has “gone from providing housing to providing warehousing for an unacceptable number of people” and his dismissal of HUD initiatives as “social engineering.”

What seems to escape him, however, is that community building has never ceased. My mom couldn’t afford to give me an allowance, but my next door neighbor would let me tutor her son for some spending money. The family across the hall would let my brother stay there when my mom was working late cleaning houses. When I was in high school and coming home late from extracurriculars or hanging out with friends, it was the local elders who looked out for me and made sure I stayed out of trouble. There are daycares, senior centers, family days — all folding into the idea of communal support in the face of inauspicious conditions.

My family, as well as many others, had built a network of support within our housing complexes — but none of that can outweigh decay and mismanagement. A neighbor can help coordinate childcare, but how do you extend that helping hand to waiting weeks for repairs on a leaking ceiling? Placing the weight on the local residents to maintain their livelihoods and improve their quality of living not only diminishes the work that many of them have already done to create spaces for themselves, but falsely assumes that residents haven’t worked hard enough to combat the encroaching snare of capitalism and affordability in major cities. Simply put, Carson is stepping into the office with a bootstrap approach to affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods; it is this perspective that has me fearful for this gamble of a nomination.

In order for the NYCHA to serve and protect the lower income communities of New York City, significant investments need to be made in public housing’s infrastructure and development — facets that have long failed to be in line with Republican policy, and seemingly aren’t reflected in Carson’s, who has consistently expressed his distaste for government investment in public welfare and housing. This perspective is likely to come at a cost to the millions of beneficiaries of HUD aid across the nation, including the hundreds of thousands of black and Hispanic NYCHA residents across the five boroughs.

As we continue to discuss how “Black Lives Matter,” it is prudent to remember that this phrase does not merely apply in our unwarranted deaths. Conscious and active effort needs to be made to ensure the maintenance and enhancement of the communities that we call home, despite the behemoth of capitalism that threatens to eviscerate low-income communities. Within New York City, many of these lives are consistently striving for a better quality of life within the NYCHA system, including my mom. It is paramount that these livelihoods are defended and that we task Carson with holding true to the objectives of HUD. I, for one, plan to continue to hold accountable the man with my mother’s fate in his hands.