“There’s a point when you go from going home on the 5:25 to the 7:05.”

Last week, I picked up my brand-new used bike from an Oakland, California shop named The Bikery.  The retail outpost of Oakland nonprofit Cycles of Change, it not only sells and repairs bikes, but also provides a free repair space for locals to drop in and use the shop’s tools to work on their own bikes, as well as programs that enable Oakland youth to earn their own bikes.  The Bikery cultivates managers who are people of color; youth; women; trans- and genderqueer; and, most of all, those from the surrounding Oakland and greater Bay Area communities.[1]

Cycles of Change’s mission is “to enable East Bay flatlands communities to use bicycles as a healthy, low-cost, efficient, safe form of primary transportation,” and “to build a network of neighborhood-based bicycle education and distribution programs to serve the basic transportation needs of hundreds of Alameda County’s residents”[2] – and it shows.  The space, sandwiched between boarded-up storefronts and a Latino cultural and community center, is bright and lively, bikes akimbo; chattering neighbors pop in and out to greet each other.  When I previously had visited with my mother, staffers enthusiastically explained the organization’s goals; when I stopped in two days later, they greeted me like an old friend.

This time, the man I had loved for six years, perched upon his own bike, accompanied me to the shop.  He frowned as we approached the store, surveying the many fliers in the window that advertised salsa nights, missing girls, Occupy protests, and college scholarships.  He followed me into the store; surveyed his surroundings; stalked back out.

“Do you think they’ll ever be okay?” he murmured, as I skipped out the door with my new bike.

“What do you mean?”

“Why are they so . . . angry?  Why do they hate us so much?  How are they ever going to fit into our society?”

I had stumbled into a warm community of people engaged in the messy, exhilarating, tiring business of creation.  He had entered the lion’s den.

As long as any American walks into a shop and feels afraid, solely because of the color of his skin, this nation needs Ethnic Studies.  That a Berkeley-A.B.D.-toting, Oberlin-educated, Ultimate Frisbee-captaining man feels threatened when walking into a store exhibiting bumper stickers such as sketch of cupcakes toting guns captioned “Cupcakes against Fascism” demonstrates just how gapingly short of a “postracial” culture we truly are.

For all the legal reasons provided above, as well as many others, federal courts must strike down HB 2281.  But that would be just the beginning.  We might be able to beat back blatant racism, but what can we do to create a society in which all of us can walk into stores run by people of any race and see smiles, instead of perceiving scowls?  This week may mark the twentieth anniversary of the L.A. Riots, but I am unsure how much we have healed ourselves in the interim.

Ethnic Studies might not create a perfect world, but the discipline has helped people across the nation name our everyday experiences, bringing us closer to understanding them, and, through this understanding, improving the world in which we all live.  Ethnic Studies is not valuable because it teaches students to hate oppressors, or to conceive of ourselves as victims.  Instead, Ethnic Studies is vital because it inspires us to create our own narratives, navigate society on our own terms, and share understanding with those who bear different perspectives.  Only by developing the capacity to empathize with all Americans can we move toward a more perfect democracy.

[1] The Bikery, http://thebikery.weebly.com/ (last visited May 2, 2012).

[2] Cycles of Change, http://www.cyclesofchange.org/about/ (last visited May 2, 2012).


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