Five Questions for Rinku Sen, Author of “The Accidental American”

By Jonathan Adams Aug 25, 2008

Originally published on the SAJA Forum SAJAforum: When and why did you decide to write this book, and why did you decide to call it “The Accidental American”? Rinku Sen: I started thinking about a book within minutes of meeting Mamdouh and the crew at ROC-NY in fall 2002. I went to their office to check quotes with co-founder Saru Jayaraman, who was in my first book, and I sensed immediately that something interesting was going to happen in this organization. I had spent fifteen years building multiracial community organizations, and this was the most diverse, transnational, multilingual group I had ever seen, totally focused on the restaurant industry. Their aggressive defense of undocumented immigrants in particular was so unusual in the post-9/11 atmosphere that it gave me a chance to point out the false connection between immigration and terrorism. I thought the story would have all the dramatic elements that would help people who are not immersed in policy debates understand how labor, immigration, and criminal justice systems work and how they affect actual human beings. I started reporting in January 2003, working on several stories about them while studying at the Columbia Journalism School. We chose the title to make the point that all Americans are accidental in some way, and that to make immigration policy as though there were such a thing as a “real” American is dishonest at best and racist at worst. Sometimes the accidents are happy — we were born here, we fell in love and came, or got a job that became permanent. Others are more complicated — being descended from slaves, or enduring the genocide of your people, having the border cross you as the United States expanded its empire, or being forced to flee poverty or war. Whatever the reason, we’re all here now, and more of us are coming, so we need an overhaul of our cultural, economic, and political principles to reflect the changing nation and world. SAJAforum: When and how did journalism become a part of your work as an organizer? SEN: All organizers learn at least the basics of getting press attention. I became attracted to the actual work of journalism because I could see the rising importance of media while I was organizing, and I was frustrated that there was little room in organizing for mass media work. Even as an organizer, my role was to craft and articulate a theory of organizing that could deal with the complications of a racially divided, yet immensely diverse society. Throughout the 80s and 90s, I could see that although many organizers were winning important campaigns, few people knew what we did, and our ideas about how cities, hospitals, schools, businesses and more should work had no traction whatsoever in the mainstream media. Individualism ruled, and it took on new policy expressions that attacked the civil rights victories of the 1960s and 70s. I decided to go to the most mainstream journalism school I could get into, and learn what editors and reporters think constitutes a good story. I thought I would go back to organizing, but as it turned out I really loved reporting and writing, and it seemed that there were indeed plenty of openings for our ideas and stories in the mainstream. New media technology has made this even more true. SAJAforum: What have been the most significant ways in which you have seen community-based journalism evolve and change over the course of your career? SEN: As media, technology, and politics merge, it’s become possible for people with few resources to create their own media outlets and disseminate widely. Communities of color are still struggling to get themselves into the mix, but there’s far more video, blogging, writing, and reporting than there was ten years ago. Activists of color know we’re getting killed on cable news and in the blogosphere, so there’s an urgency that I didn’t feel from the field ten years ago. Giving enough focus to the storytelling remains a challenge — getting specific, proving every point with reporting, finding people to tell the story through, carving up our journalistic projects into digestible pieces in the age of YouTube, and just making sure that our production is high-quality enough to attract the unconverted. SAJAforum: How well do you think the mainstream media has covered the contemporary debate over immigration policy? SEN: The mainstream debate over immigration is too narrow to lead to real solutions. On one side, it’s all about enforcement, and on the other side, it’s all about legalizing labor. What goes missing, with a few important exceptions, is the kind of coverage that places immigration in the context of globalization, and the kind that lets us see immigrants as fully human — not just as bodies prepared to work, but also as people who contribute to the civic and cultural life of U.S. communities. Most news stories focused on individuals do little to connect people’s choices and circumstances to the system — we get either very individual stories or very policy-oriented stories, but rarely do the two come together. Few mainstream news outlets delve into the racial dynamics of immigration adequately. History plays little role in most coverage, and the rise of anti-immigrant punditry is rarely challenged. Not all this, however, is the fault of media makers alone — business, politicians, and even some immigration advocates all treat the issue this way, which prevents us from talking about the kinds of bold solutions that could actually get us out of the cycle of creating, then punishing, then legalizing undocumented immigrants. Some journalists don’t see changing a debate as their job, but it certainly is our job to place events in their proper context and to find the stories that aren’t being told. SAJAforum: What do you believe are the lessons to be learned from the story about ROC-NY and Colors for the broader national debate over immigration policy and reform? SEN: The book’s primary characters are Arabs, Africans, and South Asians. I think their stories bust open the image of the typical immigrant, but they also reveal two important lessons. First, those groups have a great deal in common with Mexicans, who still constitute the vast majority of undocumented immigrants. Second, by focusing on improving life and working conditions for immigrants of color at the bottom of the hierarchy, the organization found a way to include everybody, from white and black native-born workers to restaurant employers to diners. The United States has been in a time of instability, scarcity, and fear — our intuition is to close ranks and shut out perceived competitors but the counterintuitive principle of embracing the other turns out to be key to improving life for all. Taking that local story to its logical conclusions should let us begin talking about how comprehensive immigration reform would really look — making legal immigration far more open with a path to citizenship so that people the power to negotiate as equals with corporations, while creating a globalization that allows communities to sustain themselves around the world.