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What the stalled US escalators and banned clotheslines point to

What the stalled US escalators and banned clotheslines point to
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First Published: Tue, Dec 27 2011. 09 29 PM IST

Illustration by Shyamal Banerjee/Mint.
Illustration by Shyamal Banerjee/Mint.
Updated: Tue, Dec 27 2011. 09 29 PM IST
If Hollywood movies and interactions as tourists make us believe that all Americans speak like Californians and live in Manhattan, then the urban mass affluent Indians who reach US shores confuse them about who the real Indian is—the poor child with a tear in one eye they see in the ad asking for donation or this suave businessman negotiating hard for his company? Four months is long enough for an outsider to get an inside view. And when this time has the good fortune of being filled with some of the best academic minds, think tank experts, government and military officials and interaction with locals, you begin to tear through the facade of impressions and perceptions formed by more limited interactions and see behind the veil. My stint as a World Fellow at Yale got me to shift several worldviews. There are two at the moment that stand out and are possibly worth your attention.
Illustration by Shyamal Banerjee/Mint.
One, the infrastructure in the US. I’m used to complaining about infrastructure in India but I was unprepared to do a repeat in the US. When is the last time we faced a two-week power outage in the national capital or its suburbs? I can’t remember it. The capital of the US, its suburbs, suburbs of New York and other cities had areas that would be missing electricity, after either a hurricane or a huge snowstorm, for two-three weeks at a stretch. I got used to getting messages from the university gym offering free hot showers to those who could not bathe at home! The crumble in America in general, and public infrastructure as a symptom of that breakdown, is a part of the narrative of Thomas Friedman’s new book: That Used To Be Us. He read out a passage at a public lecture in October to illustrate the point. He said: “It took China’s Teda Construction Group 32 weeks to build a world-class convention centre from the ground up—including giant escalators in every corner—and it was taking the Washington Metro crew 24 weeks to repair two tiny escalators of 21 steps each.” He was commenting on the escalator standing still on the metro station he uses to get to downtown DC. But it isn’t just that escalator; I climbed others that have been turned into stagnant stairways in DC. You don’t expect bad infrastructure in a country that has a per capita income that is 45 times more than your own.
Two, that racism lives and is a deep, deep problem in the US. I took a quick straw poll on my return and found that most people surveyed did not think racism was a serious problem in the US. After all, Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American president, wasn’t he? But then that was the surprise—not only is the divide between the blacks and whites (they’ve cleaned up the language to not say black and white, but the real division is not so easy to erase) still in your face, the desire to keep it that way affects the way communities live. On a visit to Orange County California over Thanksgiving, I was intrigued to find my host running washing through a drier. The area has 11 months of sunny weather—why not dry them out? Well, the community had outlawed clothes being hung out to dry. I kept pulling at the string of “why” and finally got an answer. From a “white” immigrant professor who traced this back to the 1950s when segregation was being legislated out of existence but lived on in the hearts and minds of the citizens. The whites did not want blacks to buy real estate in their communities for fear of property values falling. Once the 1968 legislation banned discrimination in the sales of homes, other means were found to continue segregation softly. A clothesline, he said, is a very “black” thing in the minds of home owners and by ruling out the line, the community tried to keep the property values up. But, there is a twist in the tale. There are two lanes in the community where the uber-rich live, where this rule is not applicable. The very rich are all white, he analysed, and the possibility of a middle class person of colour being able to afford a house there was tiny. Not just in rules around home ownership, the racial divide is clear in the way crime is perceived on the streets. Inner city crime is mostly black and how people on the street react to the person on the street depends on colour, specially toward nightfall. The race issue is there in the one-point Republican agenda to get Barack Obama out. The grey hairs in the universities are free with their analysis of race being the real political issue in the election in 2012. The Republican attempt to push the blame of America’s economic crumble on Obama was so eloquently put in perspective by Elizabeth Alexander, the African-American poet, playwright and Yale professor: “you make a mess and then get a black guy to clean it up.”
Monika Halan works in the area of financial literacy and financial intermediation policy and is a certified financial planner. She is editor, Mint Money, and Yale World Fellow 2011. She can be reached at expenseaccount@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Dec 27 2011. 09 29 PM IST