Breaking the Cycle: How Increasing Access to Female-Controlled Contraception Can Empower Low-Income Adolescent Females

Carleen Su

2016 Science Prize in Expository Writing



Disadvantaged neighborhoods often generate a sense of hopelessness among adolescents, and a female adolescent’s perceived lack of control over her life outcome may affect her confidence to advocate for her sexual health. This exacerbates an existing structural sexual disempowerment that discourages women from taking initiative in sexual experiences, as long-standing public health efforts aimed at reducing unplanned pregnancies that only distribute male condoms put women in the position of depending on the male’s willingness to use condoms. Providing access to female-controlled contraception — specifically female condoms — could empower low-income adolescent women to take greater control of their own lives by not only expanding their options of contraception and thus, reducing the likelihood of an unplanned pregnancy that could lead them to remain in a disempowering situation of poverty, but also providing the opportunity to challenge a structural sexism that expects women to submit to their sexual partners.


Adolescents growing up in extreme poverty are likely to live in neighborhoods in which they are exposed to unemployment, violence, and teen pregnancy, and such an environment may generate a sense of powerlessness in maintaining their sexual health (Bolland et al. 2006). For teenagers growing up in communities such as the South Bronx, for example, where half of its adult residents have not graduated high school and teenage pregnancies are relatively common (Waddell et al 2010), it may feel very difficult to find a way out of a cycle that has already taken root in their community. Children born to teen mothers are more likely to drop out of high school, face unemployment, find themselves in similar situations of poverty, and become teen parents themselves (Schuyler Center 2008). Due to the often intergenerational nature of many negative outcomes, adolescents may feel discouraged by what they may view as their destiny. In fact, when surveyed, 23.4% of 2,468 inner-city adolescents, some as young as nine years old, agreed with the statement, “I might as well give up because I can’t make things better for myself” (Bolland 2003:149). This suggests that the hopelessness that they sense within their environments quickly becomes internalized and prevents them from taking positive actions in their own lives. These circumstances have serious implications for adolescent women in particular. Women who do not feel confident in their ability to determine the course of their lives are less likely to advocate for their sexual health (Waddell et al. 2010). Indeed, for women who live below the federal poverty line, the rate of unintended pregnancies is more than five times that of women whose income is more than twice as much (Finer and Zolna 2011), which demonstrates a difficulty in taking control within a sexual relationship and preventing unplanned pregnancies.
Current public health interventions that only distribute certain kinds of contraception further perpetuate the powerlessness of low-income adolescent women. One possible alternative to these forms of contraception is the female condom, which could give a woman more agency than what is currently available. There is significant variation in the kinds of contraception that are available to adolescents among states, cities, and individual school districts, but there is no evidence that female condoms are discussed or are available. Many high school websites will say that they distribute condoms, but never specify whether this includes female condoms, and others have school-based health centers that offer intrauterine devices (IUD) or birth control pills without parental consent, but don’t seem to offer female condoms. While IUDs or birth control pills may offer protection from pregnancy, it is important for an adolescent woman to have access to a barrier method that can not only protect against pregnancy, but also protect her from sexually-transmitted diseases, without relying on her partner’s use of a condom. Thus, female condoms are uniquely able to give females the opportunity to protect themselves and take control of their sexual health, and should be made available to girls who live in poverty. Increasing access to and awareness of female condoms not only can provide increased protection against unplanned pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases that may negatively impact an adolescent woman’s life outcome, but also has the potential to empower her to challenge existing gender norms that defer power primarily to men and take greater agency over her sexual health.


The perception of the inevitability of negative outcomes that low-income neighborhoods often perpetuate may result in adolescent women surrendering their sexual autonomy to their partners at the cost of safe sex. Low-income adolescents are significantly less likely to use contraception than their wealthier counterparts, and research has shown that their decision not to use birth control is predominantly connected to a sense of powerlessness and general skepticism about themselves and their future opportunities (Waddell et al. 2010). This resignation and lack of confidence make it more likely that an adolescent woman will not advocate for her sexual health and, instead, succumb to her partner’s desire to have unprotected sex. In contrast, a confident woman will view herself as an equal partner and be more capable of negotiating for her own sexual health. In fact, women who are confident in their ability to convince their partner to use contraception are 21 times more likely than other women to have used contraceptives in their most recent sexual experience (Meekers et al. 2002). This suggests that those who are more sexually assertive are more likely to engage in safe sex, as their confidence gives them the ability to negotiate for protection and increases the likelihood that contraception will be used.

However, perhaps the biggest determining factor in the degree of sexual assertiveness that adolescent women adopt, and thus, their ability to successfully advocate for condom use, is the amount of agency that they feel that they are entitled to in their sexual relationships, which is influenced by broader societal norms. Currently, our culture propagates a sexual script for heterosexual relationships that places women in the position of submitting to the desires of their more dominant male partners, who are seen to take on the role of not only initiating the sexual situation, but also determining the sexual activities. These norms shape adolescents’ expectations about how men and women should act in sexual situations, and adolescent women may feel hesitant to advocate for themselves sexually, particularly when doing so would contradict the cultural expectation that they should not take initiative in sexual situations (Sanchez 2012). In fact, in a study of adolescent sexuality, researchers found that teenage boys seemed to take a more active role in their sexual experiences, and they tended to recount the various strategies that they had used in order to secure sex, whereas the girls related the experience of their first sexual encounters as something that just “happened to them” (Sanchez 2012:168). This suggests that beliefs about male dominance and female submissiveness dramatically shape young adolescents’ sexual behavior even during their first sexual experiences, and the failure to empower women during their adolescent years may reinforce deeply embedded assumptions about the degree of agency that women should have. In fact, in a study of women in the United States, ranging in age from 14 to 25, many of them reflected that they did not believe they had the right to make decisions about their birth control (Rickert, Sanghvi, & Wiemann 2002). This finding is alarming, as it suggests that many adolescent women not only do not feel confident enough to take initiative over their sexual health, but also do not feel that this is something they, as women, should do at all. For example, Shanterrica Piper, who became pregnant at age 14 and subsequently dropped out of high school, reflects that for contraception, she only used condoms if her partner brought them and never considered that she could have taken a greater role in making sure that they used birth control. Now 19, Shanterrica laments her ignorance of other options, feeling that she “could’ve gotten more than what I did get,” had she been more aware that she could have taken more agency in her sexual health. She adds, “When you want respect, you have to respect yourself to get it” (Martin 2015:1). This moving sentiment demonstrates the urgent need to provide low-income adolescent women with female condoms that give them the opportunity to challenge stereotypical sexual scripts and advocate for themselves.


Sexist attitudes about the degree of agency that women should have in a sexual encounter are reflected and exacerbated by the Food and Drug Administration’s failure to establish the female condom as an equally safe and effective means of birth control as the male condom, which reinforces a culture that gives women significantly fewer options to maintain their sexual health. When the female condom was first presented to the FDA in 1993, because of limited information of its protection against STDs in comparison to the male condom, the FDA classified it as a Class III medical device and specified labelling that marked the female condom as the alternative (Cimons 1993). However, after more than 20 years and countless published clinical studies that have demonstrated the equivalent efficacy of female condoms and support the reclassification to match its male counterpart, which enjoys a favorable Class II status, the female condom still remains in the category reserved for devices that pose serious risks, such as implantable pacemakers and breast implants (Beksinska et al 2015). The FDA’s decision to continue to hold the female condom in a lesser status, despite overwhelming evidence, has created a longstanding perception of the female condom as inferior to the male condom, and their failure to recognize the legitimacy of female-controlled contraception continues to suggest that men should be the main determinants of female sexual health. Additionally, widespread campaigns that sought to prevent unintended pregnancies or the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases established that women should either change the number or types of their sexual partners or encourage their partners to use condoms (Rosenberg and Gollub 1992). Such messages put the burden on women to change their lifestyles and the people they engage with, or become better negotiators for condom use with their sexual partners. Propagating the idea that the best way for a female to protect herself from unintended pregnancies or sexually-transmitted diseases is to rely on others continues to miss opportunities to empower women.


It is important to make female condoms more readily accessible for adolescent women, as research shows such types of contraception are just as effective at preventing pregnancy and the transmission of STDs as male-controlled ones, if not more (French et al. 2003). Because these types of contraception can be used on the woman’s initiative without needing her partner’s cooperation or knowledge, she is better able to guarantee her own health and protect herself from sexual risks. Furthermore, researchers found that introducing female-controlled contraception such as female condoms and encouraging their use made women more likely to protect themselves by using more contraception in general. In fact, after an intervention in which sexually-active women received either female and male condoms or only male condoms, the reported use of barrier methods for those who were given both types nearly doubled (Artz et al. 2000). The fact that the simple addition of female condoms as an option enhances overall contraceptive use and results in greater protection is remarkable, and suggests that because female condoms give females greater agency, they have more negotiating power with their sexual partners. The discussion between two sexual partners about protection no longer ends if the man refuses to use a male condom. The introduction of female-controlled birth control shifts the conversation from whether or not a condom should be used to “which” condom to use (French et al. 2003). This not only increases the likelihood that some sort of contraception will be used in the encounter at all, but also leads to greater equity in the relationship. Many women who were provided free access to female-controlled contraceptives reflected, “We decided to take turns— sometimes he used his, and sometimes I used mine” (French et al. 2003:438). It is evident that female condoms enhance the position of the female as an equal partner, such that refusing sex is no longer a woman’s sole means of protecting herself (Gollub 2000). We must educate adolescents to view female-based contraception as an equally legitimate and effective alternative to the traditional male condom. Offering low-income adolescent women more choices and resources for contraception that they can control will give women more power in their relationships and empower them to take the initiative to make sure that they are as protected as possible in all sexual experiences (Rosenberg and Gollub 1992).

Female condoms can play an integral role in empowering low-income adolescent women and giving them the opportunity to develop a greater sense of self-advocacy in many ways. For example, it has been demonstrated that increasing access to female condoms can increase overall contraceptive use and reduce the likelihood of an unplanned pregnancy (French et al. 2003), which prevents negative life outcomes that could otherwise make it difficult to escape disadvantaged situations. Often, in low-income neighborhoods, the feelings of hopelessness that adolescents have toward the prospect of a better future may make it more likely that an adolescent woman who has become pregnant will surrender to the negative situation and view it as evidence that nothing she does can change her fate (Bolland 2003). Having little confidence to self-advocate and be proactive can lead a pregnant adolescent to decide to drop out of high school if she has difficulty keeping up academically or experiences the stigma or shame often associated with teen pregnancy, and she might eventually lose hope altogether about returning to school or finding a well-paid job (Schuyler Center 2008). Thus, by preventing unplanned pregnancies, female condoms can eliminate unnecessary hardship in adolescents' lives and offer them the opportunity to realize their potential and break a negative cycle of teenage pregnancy and poverty that is difficult to reverse. In addition, female condoms empower women by giving them the opportunity to advocate for themselves sexually and challenge existing gender norms that expect them to be submissive. Taking control of their own reproductive health may have positive effects on their perceived sense of control over the rest of their lives and increase their confidence in their ability to advocate for themselves.


Ultimately, although public health initiatives of the past have largely failed to appreciate that the value of female condoms extends far beyond simply preventing unplanned pregnancies and the transmission of STDs like its male counterpart, it is not too late to act now and provide adolescents free access to contraceptives that give women greater control over their sexual health. Considering the fact that adolescent experiences form the foundation of an individual’s life, it is crucial to prioritize the empowerment of teenagers, particularly those growing up in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Providing access to female condoms has the potential to break what is often an intergenerational cycle of poverty, and we should not underestimate the positive effect that such a simple policy could have on the lives of many.



Artz L., Macaluso M., Brill I., Kelaghan J., Austin H., Fleenor M., Robey L., Hook EW. 2000. Effectiveness of an Intervention Promoting the Female Condom to Patients at Sexually Transmitted Disease Clinics. American Journal of Public Health. 90(2): 237-244.  

Beksinska M, Smit J, Mabude Z. 2015. The FDA Regulatory Process for Female Condoms. Presented at Global Female Condom Conference. Durban, South Africa.

Bolland JM. 2003. Hopelessness and Risk Behavior Among Adolescents Living in High-Poverty Inner-City Neighborhoods. Journal of Adolescence. 26(2): 145-158.

Bolland JM, Lian BE, Formichella CM. 2006. The Origins of Hopelessness Among Inner-City African-American Adolescents. American Journal of Community Psychology. 36(3-4): 293-305.

Cimons M. 1993 April 28. FDA to approve female condom, Push male type. Los Angeles Times.

Finer LB, Zolna MR. 2011. Unintended pregnancy in the United States: Incidence and disparities, 2006. Guttmacher Institute. 84(5): 478–485.  

French PP, Latka M, Gollub EL, Rogers C, Hoover DR, Stein ZA. 2003. Use-Effectiveness of the Female Versus Male Condom in Preventing Sexually Transmitted Disease in Women. American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association. 30(5): 433-439.

Gollub EL. 2000. The Female Condom: Tool for Women’s Empowerment. American Journal of Public Health. 90(9): 1377-1381.

Martin B. 2015 Sept 24. State to offer free birth control to low-income teenagers. The Dallas Morning News.

Meekers D and Klein M. 2002. Determinants of Condom Use among Young People in Cameroon. Studies in Family Planning. 33(4) 335-346.

Rickert VI, Sanghvi R., Wiemann CM. 2002. Is Lack of Sexual Assertiveness among Adolescent and Young Adult Women a Cause for Concern? Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. 34(4): 178-183.

Rosenberg, M, Gollub EL. 1992. Commentary: Methods Women Can Use That May Prevent Sexually Transmitted Disease, Including HIV. American Journal of Public Health. 82(11): 1473-1478.

Sanchez DT, Fetterolf JC, Rudman LA. 2012. Eroticizing Inequality in the United States: The Consequences and Determinants of Traditional Gender Role Adherence in Intimate Relationships. The Journal of Sex Research. 49(2-3): 168-183.       

Teenage Births: Outcomes for Young Parents and Their Children. Rep. Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, 2008. Print.

Waddell EN, Orr MG, Sackoff J., Santelli JS. 2010. Pregnancy Risk among Black, White, and Hispanic Teen Girls in New York City Public Schools. Journal of Urban Health. 87(3): 426-439.


Emotional insight: Discovering the nature of prejudice development and reduction through emotional mechanisms

2016 Sosland Prize in Expository Writing

Lily Lu
Issues related to race and prejudice have been prevalent and deeply rooted in the history of the United States, especially between black and white populations. Even today, events such as the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a black man, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri (Bowman, 2015), and the racially charged events occurring at universities such as the University of Missouri (Rosenberg, 2015) have made it more and more obvious that prejudice and tense race relations still persist as a modern problem. As of 2014, at least 38% of the population in the United States is comprised of non-white minorities (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014), and population projections by the U.S. Census (2014) predict that this diversity will only grow in the near future. As the nation’s population becomes more diverse, researchers have increasingly become focused on the science behind prejudice and what can be done to reduce prejudices in order to allow for the success of intergroup relations in the future. Such research has focused on two forms of prejudice: explicit prejudices, which reflect the conscious beliefs and self-reported attitudes that one has toward certain racial groups, and implicit prejudices, which involve more automatic and unconscious beliefs and attitudes (Baron and Banaji, 2006; Bigler and Liben, 2007). Studies have found that implicit forms of prejudice are much more pervasive than explicit forms of prejudice (Baron and Banaji, 2006; Kubota, Banaji, and Phelps, 2012), which suggests that there is some aspect of implicit prejudices that makes them more resistant to change. This implied immutability of implicit prejudices raises issues for the effectiveness of prejudice reduction techniques, and so an understanding of the mechanisms behind the pervasiveness of implicit prejudices would act as the next step in furthering advances in prejudice reduction methodology.
So far, the common methods of reducing prejudice largely rely on conscious and self-aware relearning of attitudes toward certain groups, especially since a number of studies have concluded that implicit biases are inescapable and impossible to eliminate, and thus impossible to change (Bargh, 1999; Devine, 1989 as cited in Dasgupta and Greenwald, 2001). Yet research has found that, while explicit prejudices change more easily in response to rational argumentation and conscious relearning, implicit prejudices respond more to persuasion that appeals to the emotions (Edwards, 1990; Edwards & von Hippei, 1995; Fabrigar & Petty, 1999 as cited in Dasgupta and Greenwald, 2001). Despite the supposed importance of understanding emotional mechanisms behind implicit prejudices, the role that emotions play in the development and persistence of prejudice is relatively less explored than that of social cognition. Surveying the existing literature on the topics of prejudice and emotions reveals the significant ways that these two fields intertwine and provides insights into the difficulties in changing the prejudices of individuals that cannot be explained by cognitive properties alone. By analyzing implicit prejudices from an emotion-based perspective, it seems that implicit prejudices are so resistant to change because the development of such prejudices is deeply rooted in an emotional learning process that is perpetuated by a subtly prejudiced society and is largely out of conscious control.


Research on prejudice reduction has changed significantly in the last few decades, most notably due to the creation of methods to measure the implicit biases that individuals are less aware of, rather than just focusing on explicit self-reports of biases. In earlier research, studies that measured prejudice through more explicit methods such as interviews, surveys, and other forms of self-reporting demonstrated a distinct drop in the negative attitudes that white Americans have toward black Americans (McConahay, Hardee, and Batts, 1981 as cited in Kubota et al., 2012). However, these findings were limited to measures of explicit prejudices, and later studies on implicit biases found decidedly different results. The study of implicit prejudices became more frequent due to the development of the implicit association test (IAT), which was able to provide a reliable way to assess unconscious biases and preferences that one may not consciously be aware of (Greenwald and Banaji, 1995). Interestingly, studies that employed the use of the IAT to measure prejudices found that even though white Americans explicitly reported no biases for or against black or white stereotypes, they demonstrated a distinct unconscious preference for positive stereotypes of white Americans over black Americans (Ames and Banaji, 2002 as cited by Kubota et al., 2012). Furthermore, even though explicit methods of reducing prejudice through advocating for egalitarian values has led to a consistent decrease of explicit racial stereotypes as children grow older, their implicit prejudices do not decrease from child to adult (Baron and Banaji, 2006).

The fact that implicit prejudices have not decreased in response to prejudice reduction techniques in the same way explicit prejudices have is especially an issue in light of the increasing amount of evidence showing that implicit measures of prejudice can predict the biased or prejudiced behavior of an individual. A review by Kubota et al. (2012) identified a few significant examples of the association between levels of implicit prejudice and an individual’s behavior. For example, increased levels of implicit biases predict a number of discriminatory behaviors in individuals, such as a less favorable judgment of another’s work. Furthermore, they noted that these unconscious and unintended biases have also been shown to influence important decisions such as whom individuals choose to trust financially, whom they choose to employ, whom they choose to support in legal matters, and even whom to treat for certain diseases in the medical field. In all previous studies, the level of explicit biases in the individuals who expressed such discriminatory behaviors was low or nonexistent. Based on these findings, even if individuals do not consciously possess prejudiced beliefs and are unaware of their implicit prejudices, their actions and decisions are still affected by the existence of such implicit biases.

Such research shows that merely reducing explicit prejudices is not enough to reduce discriminatory behavior in the long run, yet efforts to reduce implicit prejudices specifically in individuals have found that these kinds of prejudices are quite resistant to change. Efforts to indirectly change implicit attitudes to be more positive or neutral toward race stimuli have been successful, but only for a short period after the study (Dasgupta and Greenwald, 2001; Kubota et al., 2012). Furthermore, a study on prejudice in children has found that both explicit and implicit prejudices are present in children at the early age of four (Bigler and Liben, 2007). As children grow older, explicit biases decrease and vanish entirely in adults, while implicit biases do not change in magnitude at all (Baron and Banaji, 2006). Baron and Banaji (2006) infer that the decrease in explicitly prejudiced attitudes may be due to a child’s values becoming more egalitarian as they develop, but such development does not affect their implicit attitudes, which suggests that implicit biases are more difficult to change and reduce than explicit biases throughout one’s life. In order to explain this, it is valuable to determine how and why implicit prejudices develop and exhibit this resistance to change that is not present in explicit prejudices.


Through decades of prejudice research, psychologists and researchers such as Gordon Allport have proposed multiple explanations for the development of prejudice in children, such as explicit learning from parent figures, conformity to a kinship group, the influences of personality and identity, and so on (Allport, 1954 as cited in Aboud, 2005). However, the majority of these models arise from cognitive origins. While there is substantial merit in analyzing the cognitive aspects of prejudice, a less common approach involves exploring prejudice from the context of emotions. Kubota et al. (2012) compiled a summary of modern findings on the neuroscience of prejudice, and found that the brain area most often reported to be active in studies of black-white race attitudes and decision-making is the amygdala, which is known for its role in governing the emotion of fear and fear conditioning, or fear learning (LeDoux, 2002). Additionally, Kubota et al. (2012) reported that the activation of the amygdala consistently correlates with implicit biases as measured on the IAT. The fact that these findings demonstrate a relationship between implicit prejudices and the amygdala suggests that there is a substantial emotional component of prejudice. Race relations themselves are highly saturated with negative emotions, such as fear, anger, and lack of trust (Kubota et al., 2012), so the fact that the amygdala is heavily involved in the neurology of prejudice is not surprising. As a side note, although emotions other than fear are involved in prejudice, such as anger, frustration, irritation, and so on (Smith and Mackie, 2005), the emotional and neural mechanisms of fear in the amygdala are more frequently discussed in the literature, and so this analysis will focus on that aspect of prejudice.

Despite research indicating that emotions are a critical part of experiencing prejudice, comparatively less focus has been placed on the emotional mechanisms behind prejudice, largely due to some misconceptions about emotion that were once held. Emotions were originally considered to be irrational and working against one’s best interests (Smith and Mackie, 2005), and also difficult to study because of their subjectivity (LeDoux, 2000). In the mid-20th century, most of the research on emotions in the context of prejudice was based on the notion that the irrationality of emotions helped to explain what was thought to be the “disturbed thinking and despicable behavior” characteristic of prejudiced individuals, such as a Nazi or a Ku Klux Klan member (Smith and Mackie, 2005, p. 364). As focus on prejudice shifted from the most extreme cases to the average person, emotions were largely pushed to the side since it seemed as if they were no longer entirely relevant (Smith and Mackie, 2005).

However, more recent studies have proven emotions to be much more systematic and rationally based than originally thought, as well as a key component of proper cognitive and social functioning in individuals. Emotions are now more appropriately defined as the unconscious process by which the brain determines the value of a stimulus and initiates an appropriate bodily response (LeDoux, 2002). Rather than just being an irrational process, emotions are actually essential in the unconscious evaluation of events and stimuli, which is critical in contributing to the health and survival of an individual (LeDoux 2002). According to Damasio (2010), emotions result from a history of evolution that has utilized such a process to attend to or fulfill one’s internal needs, life-regulation mechanisms, and motivations. Furthermore, emotions have been found to be essential in processes that were originally seen as purely cognitive, such as decision making, social functioning, and learning (Immordino-Yang and Damasio, 2007). Far from being an entirely irrational process, emotions actually serve as key processes that inform an individual’s cognitive processes at an unconscious level, which indicate how essential it is to consider emotions in analyzing implicit prejudices. The fact that the amygdala is involved in experiencing prejudice further indicates that some emotion-based approach to implicit prejudices is necessary to understand the processes behind such biases.

While the rational and purposeful basis of emotions makes sense when one considers the role that some emotions play in life, one may wonder if the fear response to prejudice demonstrates this at all, since prejudiced responses are typically seen as undesirable. On the one hand, a number of emotions serve useful and welcome purposes. The presence of some life-threatening stimulus, such as a hostile animal, may trigger the emotion of fear that leads to bodily responses appropriate for the situation at hand, such as a fight-or-flight response, increased heart rate, and a rush of adrenaline (LeDoux, 2002). Emotions labeled as social emotions, such as compassion, guilt, and admiration, facilitate interactions in social systems and allow for the formation of ethical systems and moral principles that govern a stable society (Damasio, 2010). Yet on the other hand, a fear response to racial stimuli does not seem to serve the same useful purposes as the other examples of emotions, which may make this process seem more irrational than what was claimed before.

This discrepancy is explained by Damasio (2010), who states that even though all emotions arise to serve some purpose, those purposes may not necessarily be adaptive or desirable, as in the case of prejudice. He explains that sometimes, an emotional response, such as fear, may only be a false alarm triggered by a stimulus that does not actually require a fear response, but has somehow acquired it, and he attributes this undesirable fear response to the influence of the culture that one is surrounded by. Immordino-Yang and Damasio (2007) further support this idea by stating that emotions play a large part in allowing for social influences to shape one’s thought, behavior, and decision-making in a socially acceptable way, which suggests that the emotional aspect of prejudice is a result of the influence of what is considered socially acceptable. These concepts suggested by Damasio and Immordino-Yang provide support for a new perspective on the development of prejudices, which is that prejudices arise when an originally neutral stimulus somehow becomes linked to a negative emotional response as a result of social influences. This connection between the development of prejudices and emotional responses can further inform the reasons why implicit prejudices have been so resistant to change, and what can be done to reduce it despite their immutability.

Approaching the development of implicit prejudices from an emotion-based standpoint takes into consideration the ways that originally neutral stimuli unassociated with emotion, such as race stimuli, obtain their emotional associations, namely fear in this case. An emotional mechanism that explains this development is the process of emotional learning, which involves the ways that an event or stimulus becomes emotionally significant, or connected to a certain emotional response (Phelps, 2006). According to Phelps (2006), a specific emotional learning process that involves the development of emotionally neutral stimuli to one that is associated with a fear response is classical fear conditioning, which occurs mainly in the amygdala, an area that, as seen previously, has been shown to take part in the experience of prejudice. Classical fear conditioning is a learning process where a previously neutral, emotionally unrelated stimulus is paired with an aversive event, such as a shock, and the pairing is repeated until the presentation of just the original stimulus begins to elicit fear-related emotional reactions, such as changes in heart rate, freezing, anxiety, avoidance, and so on. While studies on fear conditioning generally use a physically aversive experience, fear conditioning can occur through symbolic or observational means as well, such as communication, instruction, or social observation (Phelps, 2006). Being repeatedly told that a certain stimulus deserves a fear response, or frequently observing such a response in others, can result in a conditioned fear response where an originally neutral stimulus or event becomes associated with the emotion of fear. The fact that the amygdala is frequently active when black-white racial biases arise implicitly (Kubota et al., 2012) and that it is additionally critical in fear conditioning suggests that the development of prejudice is linked to subtle forms of conditioned emotional responses.

In fact, a study conducted by Conger, Dygdon, and Rolluck (2012) found that increasing levels of adverse experiences with people of certain racial groups, whether through direct, observational, or verbal means, led to an increase in aversive responses, such as anxiety and avoidance. Although it is unlikely that every child undergoes frequent aversive experiences with an individual of another race that results in the development of this conditioned response, the fact that fear conditioning can occur through social observation suggests the more likely ways through which fear becomes associated with certain racial groups. This idea that aversive experiences with certain groups can lead to fear conditioning in children is incredibly significant due to the prevalence of subtle behaviors that suggest discrimination in individuals even if they are not aware of such biases. Studies have shown that a greater level of implicit bias is associated with subtly aversive and uncomfortable behaviors, such as less eye contact and more blinking (Dovidio et al., 1997, 2002 as cited in Amodio and Devine, 2006), speech hesitations, smiling or lack thereof, sitting distance from certain individuals (McConnell and Leibold, 2001 as cited in Amodio and Devine, 2006), and so on. In all of the preceding situations, such subtly discriminatory behavior was not predicted by explicit self-reporting of biases, which were generally low or nonexistent. Despite individuals not consciously being aware of their biases, subtle elements of their behavior demonstrate avoidant or uncomfortable associations with certain race stimuli. As younger, more impressionable children are exposed to such repeated observations of people reacting aversively to race stimuli, this will lead to the development of a conditioned response to race stimuli that reflects what is common in society. For example, if a white parent frequently acts in an avoidant manner when approached by a black person, and does not act in the same way when approached by someone else of a different race, the child of the parent may just learn from observation that certain kinds of people ought to be avoided and will develop a conditioned emotional response to the sight of a black person.

The fact that the development of implicit prejudices is deeply rooted in this emotional learning mechanism explains why preventing prejudices from forming in the first place is so difficult, and also why implicit prejudices are so resistant to change. The substantial role that the influence of society plays on the conditioning of negative emotional responses to racial stimuli is incredibly difficult to manage, since it requires that every person a young, impressionable child interacts with needs to act in a completely unbiased way. Although it is possible for an individual to control their emotional responses, doing so requires a substantial amount of effort (Frijda, 1988). Additionally, according to Damasio (2010), willful control of emotions cannot prevent the bulk of the emotional process from occurring, which involves internal bodily changes and expression-based changes that are out of conscious control, such as frequency of blinking, which is one of the subtle discriminatory behaviors that implicit prejudices can predict. Especially since emotional responses are automatic and unconscious, such behavior is incredibly difficult to control, and it is unreasonable to expect every person in a community to put in the tremendous amount of effort needed for a bias-free society to form. As a result, an already unconsciously prejudiced society conditions children to internalize negative or avoidant emotional responses to racial stimuli, which manifests subtly in their behavior as they develop, and such behavior serves to act as conditioning material for the children after them. Such a cycle continues without end and explains why implicit prejudices have been so difficult to reduce and eliminate.


The emotional component of prejudice provides the means to explain the resistance of implicit prejudices to change, which is due to this seemingly unchangeable cycle of prejudice. Such a conclusion may suggest a pessimistic image of the future of prejudice reduction, since it seems like the reduction of implicit prejudices may be near impossible in the society we currently live in. However, with modern technology and a bit of open-mindedness, it may be possible to create a controlled environment to foster more neutral or positive emotional associations with racial stimuli. One method may be one that utilizes the Internet to create controlled chat or communication spaces that could allow for the development of more positive associations with other people. In a chat room, one would not have to be concerned with their subtle discriminatory behavior when communicating with others, which reduces the pressure of controlling implicit behaviors in every person. Additionally, communication through a controlled Internet space could provide people with more time to think about their responses to others and potentially be less influenced by their implicit biases. In this way, perhaps younger, more impressionable children can develop in an environment that is not saturated with implicit prejudices that can lead to the conditioning of a negative emotional response to racial stimuli. While research on the use of the Internet to improve intergroup relations has found that there is potential for structured Internet interactions to reduce intergroup biases (White, Abu-Rayya, Bliuc, and Faulkner, 2015), there is still quite a way to go in that realm of research. Such an approach may be crudely idealistic on a large scale, but a bit of creativity and expanding thinking is necessary to even begin to approach an issue as deeply rooted as prejudice. At this point, considering the emotional component of prejudice is just one small, but necessary, step toward improvement of intergroup relations as a whole.



Aboud, F. E. (2005). The development of prejudice in childhood and adolescence. In On the Nature of Prejudice (pp. 310-326). Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Amodio, D., & Devine, P. (2006). Stereotyping and evaluation in implicit race bias: Evidence for independent constructs and unique effects on behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(4), 652-661.

Baron, A., & Banaji, M. (2006). The development of implicit attitudes. Evidence of race evaluations from ages 6 and 10 and adulthood. Psychological Science, 17(1), 53-58.

Bigler, R., & Liben, L. (2007). Developmental intergroup theory: Explaining and reducing children's social stereotyping and prejudice. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(3), 162-166.  

Bowman, K. (2015, August 9). Watts, Ferguson and the state of race relations in America. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/bowmanmarsico/2015/08/09/watts-ferguson-and-...

Conger, A., Dygdon, J., & Rollock, D. (2012). Conditioned emotional responses in racial prejudice. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 35(2), 1-22.

Damasio, A. (2010). Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. New York: Vintage Books.

Dasgupta, N. and Greenwald, A. G. (2001). On the malleability of automatic attitudes: Combating automatic prejudice with images of admired and disliked individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(5), 800-814.

Frijda, N.H. (1988). The laws of emotion. American Psychologist, 43, 349-358.

Greenwald, A., & Banaji, M. (1995). Implicit social cognition: Attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes. Psychological Review, 102(1), 4-27.

Immordino-Yang, M. H. and Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(1), 3-10.

Kubota, J., Banaji, M. R., Phelps, E. A. (2012). The neuroscience of race. Nature Neuroscience, 15(7), 940-948.

LeDoux, J. (2000). Emotion circuits in the brain. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 23, 155-184.

LeDoux, J. (2002) Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. New York: Penguin Books.

Phelps, E. (2006). Emotion and cognition: Insights from studies of the human amygdala. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 27-53.

Rosenberg, A. (2015, November 11). Yale, University of Missouri and the broken promises of America’s universities. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2015/11/11/yale-universi...

Smith, E., & Mackie, D. (2005). Aggression, hatred, and other emotions. In On the Nature of Prejudice (pp. 361-376). Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2014). Projections of the size and composition of the U.S. population: 2014 to 2060. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/population/projections/data/national/2014/publicat...

White, F., Abu-Rayya, H., Bliuc, A., & Faulkner, N. (2015). Emotion expression and intergroup bias reduction between Muslims and Christians: Long-term Internet contact. Computers in Human Behavior, 53, 435-442. 



This Kind of Business

2016 David Rice Ecker Short Story Prize 

Emily Zhao


Weicheng Bo inhaled the salt wind, trying to swallow his seasickness, as a dreadlocked boy harnessed his daughter to a parasail. He’d be out of the boat in a few minutes, clipped in next to Margaret, both of them 500 feet over the Atlantic Ocean.

Weicheng had told Margaret about the trip to Florida after the 90-percent incident—not because he conceded that his standards were too high, but because he’d made Margaret a bit too upset. They would fly to Miami and drive down the Keys. “You can sleep on the backseat,” he coaxed. “You can sleep on the beach. You can sleep the whole week. Do whatever you want.” Margaret had never picked up on rolling her eyes, a tic naturally absent from Chinese muscular vocabulary, but she flared her nostrils to the same effect. Even the facetious suggestion that she’d do something like that insulted her. She made Weicheng proud.

“I’m going scuba diving,” she challenged, “and bungee jumping, and jet skiing, and banana boating. Oh, and rock climbing, and parasailing.” Weicheng did not recognize half the activities, which Margaret must have heard in her friends’ vacation accounts, but he looked them up and figured the costs into the budget.

So there they were. And ever since the girl piloting the boat cut the engine so Blond Dreadlocks could harness his passengers, every swell tilted the horizon in an uneven hiccup. It was just past noon; Weicheng wore only swim trunks and a life vest, but acutely felt the deadly combination of the rocking motion and the heat rising from under his synthetic shell.

Margaret looked a little sick, too, but Weicheng knew she would sooner throw up in her life vest than say anything. She saw most ailments, including fear, as a kind of weakness. She loved heights; she loved labyrinths. When she started drinking (in nine years, Weicheng unconvincedly hoped), she would probably love straight whiskey.

Weicheng hadn’t really resented Xiaohong’s refusal to parasail with Margaret, although it meant that he would technically need to go. The necessity gave him a chance to acquire his daughter’s approval in a way that might otherwise be impossible.

“All right,” said Dreadlocks, giving the straps a last round of loose-jointed tugs and slapping Margaret’s bare shoulder. “You’re all set, Marge. Willy, you’re up.”

Willy. Weicheng stood up, propping himself against Dreadlocks’ melony bicep. Willy. He still wasn’t fully conditioned to respond to it; felt wary, as if it were an acquaintance whose true intentions he could not gauge, despite its appearance on his office desk plaque, nametags, business cards, and in Margaret’s school telephone book. Sometimes Xiahong—or Susie, “Call me Susie,” she’d learned to simper to Margaret’s friends—even called him Willy at home. Willy, 你去中国店可以买点儿姜吗: Can you grab some ginger at the Chinese market? Willy, 陈林芳家请我们去过新年: The Chens invited us over for New Year’s. Still Weicheng only on unpleasant, bureaucratic paper. He almost enjoyed signing for grocery payments just to see evidence of himself successfully living.

And here was this boy, 23 years old and working at SunSurf’n’Sports while he “figured things out” after college (University of Central Florida, Marketing)—“Ah, I get that,” Weicheng said, “I took some odd jobs after college, too. You’ll get there”, when in fact, he’d gone to work for a bank that provided him an apartment, a chauffeur, and a ticket overseas—yet here was this boy, calling him Willy.

“C’mon, Dad,” groaned Margaret. Weicheng realized he’d been, as Margaret called it, “spacing out.” She’d imitated the face for him: lips loosely pursed as if around a thick straw, eyes peering at some undesignated point over his rimless glasses.

“Be patient, Lele,” he said. His voice ground out the Chinese nickname she hated to hear in public.

Dreadlocks thumped him on the back. “Take it easy, Willy. It’s a bit choppy today.” The pilot, who had a pink shred of popped gum bubble on the tip of her nose, bobbed her head sympathetically. Margaret turned her head away to look out toward Cuba.

“Sure thing,” Willy said, the expression a strange creature in his mouth.


Margaret brought home a math test with a red “90%—Great Job J!” across the top. She had tried to tell Weicheng that the test from four weeks ago had been the semester’s last, even though she normally took one every two weeks. Weicheng deduced from Margaret’s uncharacteristically aggressive tone, as well as what he’d glimpsed of her math teacher—thin and unsmiling with cropped hair and a Columbia degree—that something was up. He found the class webpage, which told him that there had indeed been a test on December 13th. It was simple algebra, simple simple algebra, concepts Weicheng taught Margaret when she was ten.

Why had Margaret lied to him about it? Why had she gotten a 90% in the first place? Why hadn’t Xiaohong paid closer attention to their daughter’s education? Why didn’t teachers communicate better with parents about grades? Weicheng demanded all these things, standing in his home office with one hand holding Margaret’s test and the other jabbing at the syllabus on the computer screen. His wife and daughter stood in the doorway, mirroring each other: arms crossed, one shoulder resting against the frame, leaning on a single leg so that the hip curved out defiant and vulnerable.


Weicheng, call me Wei—”

“—90 is a good score. Plus—” Xiaohong turned to Margaret “—Margaret tells me she still has A in the class for the semester? Right, Margaret? That’s what we all aim for, right? Straight A?”

Not ‘aim’ for,” said Weicheng, tightening his fist around the sheaf of paper and shaking it so that it flapped in complaint. “We’re just going to get it.”

“I didn’t tell you ‘cause I knew you’d flip out like this,” Margaret told her toes. Xiaohong slipped one arm behind her daughter’s shoulders, a gesture she did not mean to hide from Weicheng but that she clearly did not think he would see.

Maybe,” Xiaohong said afterwards, standing in the middle of their room with a mug of honey-laced water clamped between her hands, “what we know about the world doesn’t apply so well here. For Margaret. She doesn’t always need to be the best—”

“—I said nothing about being the best. Did I ask about other kids? What’s that phrase they always use—the best that you can be. I want Margaret to be…” he struggled to find the right Mandarin “…her best self.”

Aiya, she’s twelve! People make mistakes! This test does not lower her grade—”

It’s not about this test, it’s about teaching how to maintain a standard of excellence—

Did you know,” said Xiaohong, “that your daughter cries every time you yell at her like this? Did you know she asked me to buy her my eye cream because she’s afraid she’s developing bags under her eyes from crying? Did you know, Willy?”

Weicheng thought about the assuring palm she’d set on Margaret’s back, the implications of the motion. Margaret “knew he’d flip out like this.” His righteousness, Weicheng recognized tiredly, made him an individual about whom people “knew” things. Things to which he was blind. He understood: he’d come to think the same about Margaret’s grandfather, Weishi Bo, none of whose children ever voluntarily visited him. They knew the old man would inquire doggedly after all, and only, their misfortunes; knew what a thankless task it would be to foist consideration and comfort upon him. 

But Weishi Bo had been one year from earning his undergraduate degree when Chairman Mao’s Down to the Countryside Movement relegated him to the muddy river hamlets he had already escaped as a teenager. In response, he began to question all motives, suspect all good news, and beat his children into a life of feverish, near-demented studiousness. After Mao’s death and the reinstitution of the college entrance exam, Weicheng flew, on the strength of his testing ability, out of the village once again, through the gates of China’s top university, and out into the West.

If getting perfect grades and grinding forward with the visionless brutality of a field ox could transport Weicheng the vast distance it had, he did not dare dream where it could take Margaret. Margaret, who started walking at six months, talking at nine months, and tossing semicolons—which Weicheng himself never fully grasped—into her “essays” by second grade.

Weicheng tightened the corners of his mouth. “Okay, Susie. I understand.” He sat down beside her. She sipped her drink.

You want any?”

Too sweet.”

Just a sip to soothe your stomach before bed?

He had already emailed the math teacher asking to schedule a conference about Margaret, and emailed again to cancel before she responded. They didn’t want, Xiaohong insisted, the people at school to think of them as “those parents they need to worry about,” Margaret as a child who should be protected from her own family.

He let Xiaohong hand him the mug. Raised it—tasted the rim, pressing firm and oddly cool against his lip. The water, grainy and salty and metallic, filled the grooves on the roof of his mouth, coated and narrowed his throat.


“All right! You folks ready to fly?”

“Yes!” squealed Margaret. Weicheng couldn’t help but look up at the interlocked clips—two sewn to his harness, each grasping another clip dangling from a horizontal bar, which itself clung to the parachute through a circuit of straps and ropes. He gave it all what he knew to be a useless tug. The clips’ curved metal was just thicker than the white plastic pens they gave out at the office.

 “Ah—I know it may be late for this”—a self-deprecating laugh, one he’d heard echoed by the Indian, Korean, and Nigerian fathers at Margaret’s school gatherings—“but this is all very safe, right? Forgive me, I’m just an old guy who works at a bank—I’m not used to this kind of business.” He didn’t look at Margaret.

Dreadlocks nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, totally. I get it. I don’t really like heights, myself. No worries, all the harnessing comes from people who also make pro rock climbing equipment. Nobody’s falling.” He grabbed the metal crossbeam affectionately. “I mean, if you’re uncomfortable, we could let missy go alone—it’s totally safe.”

“No,” said Weicheng, “I’m going. I believe you. And she always makes fun of me for being scared of heights, so. . . .”

“All righty, then, sounds good! So, you folks ready?”

“Yes!” Weicheng said with his daughter. Smiled, though the surface of his face felt like congealing plaster, and threw a thumbs-up for good measure.

“Here goes!” Dreadlocks stepped behind a hollow metal post—through which, Weicheng had learned after shouting a couple inquiries over the wind, the “towline” fed—and pressed a button on the control panel.

With a whir, the black cord shot and stretched out and out and out. The harness pressed the back of Weicheng’s thighs as the wind hauled them into the sky.

“Woohoo!” shrieked Margaret, swinging her feet. Dreadlocks raised them a quickly diminishing thumbs-up.


“All right, Willy—nice to see you using some of those vacation days,” said Weicheng’s boss, Marco, grinning at Weicheng over his peanut butter and Nutella sandwich. (One day Weicheng had asked him whether it was normal, the peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches Margaret mysteriously began asking her mother to make. “Susie’s been packing her one every day and—” “I’ll be damned that I didn’t think of that first!” Marco said. The next day he brought a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich and raised it to Weicheng in a salute, winking.) “Where you takin’ the folks?”

“Florida,” Weicheng told him. He’d actually already used two of his vacation weeks. “Miami for a few days, then we drive down the Keys and stay at Key West. At the Hacienda Extraña.” Ah-see-end-uh ecks-TRAHN-ya!, he’d practiced.

“The Hacienda Extraña! Nice place. Very nice place.” An appraising nod, mouth puckered in bemused approval. “Glad you’re learning to, ah, take a breather, bud.”

“Thanks,” said Weicheng, unsure whether any of the responses that came immediately to mind were appropriate.

“Well,” said Marco, “you all enjoy yourselves. Tell Susie and Margaret I said hi. Didn’t get to see them at our last group social, but, I suppose that’s just how you all roll…”

“Sure.” Weicheng snapped the lid onto the container in which Xiaohong had packed him leftover green beans and rice. “Sure, I’ll tell them.”

Marco wore a different colored silk shirt every day of the week, purchased on an income made possible only, Weicheng figured, by the serendipity of his Bachelor’s from Princeton. He had two sons who, judging by the photos taped to Marco’s computer, looked to match their father in girth—if not, from what Margaret impatiently told him about their school habits, in undergraduate degree prestige. (“Why do you care, Dad?”)

“Oh, you know what—I brought two of these sandwiches today.” Marco hefted another cellophane square. “You wanna try one? Your daughter loves ‘em too, right, maybe she’s onto something.”

“I think I’m good, thank you,” said Weicheng. “Too sweet.”

Marco tilted the sandwich and cocked his wrist, as if that would make it more appealing. “No? All right, then. Just thought I’d offer. Don’t think I could live off those lunches of yours, personally, just veggies and rice. But whatever floats your boat, Willy.”

He told Xiaohong over dinner, “Marco said an interesting idiom today—whatever floats your boat. You think if we put his family in a rowboat, they’d float?”

Weicheng!” Xiaohong laughed, but protectively drew his wine glass away. “Thinking about boss drowning is not appropriate,” she said, obscuring how much she was joking by lifting the glass to her mouth.

He’s just a person, right? It’s just a joke, that’s all.”

“Mr. Pullman seems nice,” said Margaret. “Billy and Dan are a little not-so-smart, though.”

Their Ba pays your tuition,” Xiaohong hummed into Weicheng’s unfinished wine. “He’s a pretty good man, very good to us.

Aiya, it was a joke, Xiaohong. A joke. Just like—remember when you lit firecrackers under our professor’s bike?”

“What?” squawked Margaret.

Stop bringing that up! What’ll Margaret think? Bad role model.”

Weicheng remembered ogling the bike engulfed in sparks and smoke. Xiaohong had laughed, running away down the street in that exaggerated moonwalk—all toe and thigh and arc, each leg spending too long in the air—that meant she was not running to get anywhere in a hurry, but for him to see her move.

Your mom’s right. Don’t do stuff like that,” he told Margaret, placing his hand over her wrist. She moved it away and stuck her tongue out, to both her parents’ faux-indignation.


Weicheng forced his eyes open as the world panned out beneath them; kept them on the sky, whose lower boundary melted from line into curve. He would not look directly below more than he needed to, instead tracing the approaching clouds with his eyes—not the sweeping, puffy contours that stacked and whirled toward the atmosphere like a staggering beehive, but the coiled wisps at the edges. Picked out the particles levitating, pale and mystic, against their blue backdrop. To their left was the island itself: its beaches stark against the water; its body blurred over, as if crayoned in Artificial Palm Tree Green; the entire surface shifting subtly and richly with the motion of cars, bicycles, people, and fronds.

Like a painting. Like a dream. He understood Margaret’s requests, which had begun salewomansly and ended in near hysteria, that they buy one of those undignified cameras on a stick. “You’ll remember better if you’re actually in the moment,” he’d said, balking at the price the fat kiosk proprietress named.

“Is that the Overseas Highway? Can we see that from here?” asked Margaret.

“Maybe. If they let us higher, if we just look hard enough. Maybe.”

To go from a boy who lived hand to mouth on a Chinese farm and shared a brick “bed” with four siblings, to an American man who could take his wife and daughter on vacation through some of the most beautiful, desirable parts of the world—he must have done something right. Sunbursts scattered across his vision. The breeze lapped at his ear. His daughter grabbed his bicep; “Look, Daddy!” She pointed at an albatross that taxied beside them and saluted with a gaze from its unblinking yellow eyes before veering off toward the open ocean.

He let his eyes drop to his calves—the tip of his toe—beyond, where the ink black of the towline blotched in a small knot, then slashed away at a vanishing diagonal, down and away—

He returned to the clouds, and then to the village. Thought about days he hated this sun, and the lazy clouds that let it gnaw his skin, as he hoed and planted. The heat-glazed chestnut surface of his mother’s face, which he’d removed from the fields’ omnipotent glare for a television’s soft glow; the washboard that ground at his dirt-infested work shirt and the dry cleaner that removed stains from his gray suit; the candles that burned out over his arithmetic homework and the laptop that dispensed Margaret’s. He marveled at the crab legs he’d ordered in the resort restaurant, the fragrant sunscreen he’d applied, the swim trunks trembling around his sagging, chair-softened thighs.

He whooped and whooped again. Margaret giggled.

You like it?” Weicheng asked. She nodded, then angled her face up and yelled, too. Less of a yell than a sustained laugh, like a tapering red silk band, which the gusts grabbed and flung streaming behind them.  


Margaret herself grew up, ironically, in a Midwestern suburb twenty minutes from the edge of corn country. The cost of living was low, the salary still high enough. Xiaohong, who always found something to girlishly praise, told her mother back in Chengdu about the changing leaves and the rivers.

The water is so clean!” she said, using a word that meant clean and clear and pure, 清. “Of course I miss the food, but the people here—so polite, so honest…come visit, Ma. Yes, really. . . !”

The Americana also ran clean and clear and pure. There were one or two Chinese men in the neighborhood and at Weicheng’s first job, but they were young, just like Weicheng; too scared, just like Weicheng, to be the right comrades in those places.

He surrounded himself with people who could not understand him if he forgot the right word. He went to neighbors’ gatherings armed with only a troubled tongue and an absolute lack of self-esteem, with which he could catch token tidbits: a greeting he parroted, a new word recurring in the conversation whose meaning he demanded and then brought home for his family, like a bird lining his nest. It was at one of the gatherings that two-doors-down UC-Berkeley-pennant Richard Hansen, a bit hard of hearing, said to Weicheng, “Hey, William, wanna do me a favor and grab the wine opener from over there?” When Mrs. Hansen appeared to fetch a glass of wine, Richard introduced Weicheng to her as William. Richard would later introduce Weicheng to golfing, fishing, Polo Ralph Lauren, and profanity, among other things. He was also the first to call him Willy.

“Dick and Willy, shootin’ hole-in-ones,” he joked. Weicheng would have preferred that Richard stuck with William. But it was also Richard who referred him to Marco for the second job, the one that let him enroll Margaret in private school; Richard, who always gave the Bo’s individual Christmas presents; Richard, who had his wife drive Margaret home when neither Xiaohong nor Weicheng got off work in time. “Willy, my best comrade!” Richard always roared, waving a plastic cup of beer or a neighbor’s champagne flute. “Richard, my first and finest friend!” Weicheng always toasted back.

Comrade. It still surprised him, sometimes: he had often wondered, when he found himself dripping sweat between the corn stalks again after a night of studying poetry and mathematics and history, whether he was even fit to be a person.

There also haunted him, naturally, the next question of whether he was fit to be a father. It was inexplicable that he should look at Margaret—bent over a sketch of a unicorn with legs comically bowed, like those of Weicheng’s neighbor back in the village—and accept that it was his duty to inadequately prepare her, and then cast her out into something. Everything. Things that neither he nor Xiaohong nor Margaret herself could ever imagine. One that might, at any moment, on a whim, take from fathers and give to sons. Give him a daughter and withhold the means for them to truly understand each other.

What was the process, perhaps, but taking the first tandem flight with Margaret, knowing that eventually she’d return only with friends, with lovers, alone?


“Dad? Baba!” said Margaret. He turned to look at her—too slowly, he knew, seeing her jaw tight and eyes unblinking in apprehension. Maybe it wasn’t exaggerated, Margaret and Xiaohong’s mockery of his “spacing out.”

Ah, I was thinking about something. Sorry.” The parasail heaved, as if Dreadlocks had let the towline out too quickly.

“Dad?” Margaret said again, and she tilted her face down. The stiffness at the back of her neck let Weicheng know she would have rather kept looking at him, but—just as she would never admit to seasickness, claustrophobia, or vertigo—she would not admit her fear.

Weicheng looked down at the boat. It struck him that it appeared further away than it had throughout their flight, and was now on a different angle of movement than he and Margaret. A kink in its wake signaled that it had turned left some time ago—and they had not.

He then noticed the serene, textureless blue of the ocean beneath them, like the surface of the geode slices Margaret had made him buy for her at gas stations along the route to Miami. Unbroken by wave, unbroken by life human or marine. Unbroken, crucially, by the oblique black cut of the towline that had tethered them to the boat, the ragged end of which now whipped around Margaret’s crossed ankles.

“Okay,” he said. “I see.”

“Let’s not panic,” he wanted to say. Realized he should not say it, because it admitted there were grounds for panic, and, worse, implied that they should ignore them; and then realized he’d already said it, because those English half-meant things came so easily now. He’d traded some of his real words for a semblance of stability, in which fathers said things like “Let’s not panic” when harnessed with their twelve-year-old daughters to a rogue parasail 500 feet above the glinting, lifeless, rock hard surface of the Atlantic Ocean, rushing at heaven-knew how many kilometers per hour toward—

“We have life jackets, no problem,” said Weicheng, tapping the left breast of his as if to reaffirm its existence and utmost helpfulness. Patted his swim trunks, even though he knew he’d left his cell phone on the boat. “The parachute must go down sometime. We find current that blows down, land in the water, and then they come to us. Companies like this, they must have safety procedures or someone sues them.” Weicheng remembered signing a liability form at the kiosk as Margaret hopped from foot to foot in the burning sand, but—this was something about America that they always made fun of and would now employ in their defense. Like that name: Willy, so stupid, so childish, but also so harmless it helped him get his way. No one named Willy who looked and talked like Weicheng could mean anyone harm, and no American company incapable of safely landing its parasailers in all circumstances, no business of that kind, could continue unlitigated, unconfronted. . . .

“Look, they’re coming.” A blotch in the wake. The boat had stopped, stalled. It was turning now, following them, and Weicheng thought he could hear Dreadlocks shouting at them, or maybe at the pilot.

“We’re gonna land safely?”


Margaret’s neck jerked as they angled and swerved, strands of salt-stiffened hair lashing her neck and temples. They were moving back toward shore. Dreadlocks began waving his arms. Weicheng tugged at the harness straps, then grabbed at the clips, but it was impossible to move them against the dead tension of his weight.

“—we’ll be—” He stopped. The way they wanted to go was out, over the water. Inhospitable as it looked under the early afternoon sun, it would be relatively safe to land in. The gray blur of beachfront roof tiles sharpened into a grid, mapped by the corners of buildings and the shaded runs of streets.


Remember how small everything looks from up there. It’s all so small.

“All right, Baba,” said Margaret. Weicheng knew he was scaring her, but it didn’t matter because that wasn’t the objective. He watched the boat as it inched toward the shadow-bruised shallows, and figured it would not catch up before they were over land.

Margaret still held onto the harness straps and swished her feet as if she were riding her elementary school’s chain swing. Weicheng looked up at the parasail, swollen so they could see its nylon threads’ crosshatch, the colors darkening as clouds moved in. They flew toward a cement pier that crooked like a pale arm trying to grasp the ocean’s heart. They crossed maggot-white slashes of sand, over beachgoers who did not look away from their volleyballs and bad books. Xiaohong stood somewhere down there in sunglasses and a lolling hat that brushed her shoulders with every overeager step. She would still raise a palm to shade her eyes, Weicheng knew, as she watched the parasail. Would trust that it was part of the deal, the adrenaline, the trick.

Are we going to go down?”

Maybe Dreadlocks would somehow call the authorities, and a helicopter would salvage them from the sky. Weicheng had a hard time imagining how that would work.

Maybe, he let himself fantasize for a second, the clouds with their bulging air-puffed cheeks would blow them back up along the Overseas Highway. Past the fool’s-gold stalagmites of downtown Miami. Over the rustling phantoms of cotton fields and the mud-languid veins of Midwestern river lands, gleaming as if through the laminate of Margaret’s history textbooks. Over tangled corridors of classrooms, bedrooms, and offices in which predictable yet unfathomable people and happenings dwelled. Out, across the Pacific, past the windows of the apartment in which his father burrowed trying to deny it all, the illogicality of events from start to finish. Showing it all to Weicheng as if, at this point in his life, he would still be able to understand any better.


The façade of the nearest beachfront building—stucco multi-story, probably a hotel—spread wider and wider across their vision, the rate at which the balcony railings lengthened and the shingling magnified telling him how fast they really flew.

 “Ba,” said Margaret.

Weicheng turned to look at his daughter—her nostrils clenched, her irises circled by perfect, unbroken whites. She looked nothing, Weicheng suddenly thought, like either him or Xiaohong, though there was the swell of her cheekbone that might eventually sharpen into the shape of Xiaohong’s face. A shard of sun fell on her face, casting shadows between its fine, clear hairs.

He swallowed the dizzying surge that rammed its way up his throat. “No problem, Lele.” Grasping Margaret’s left bicep with his right hand, he swung his left arm across to grab her right shoulder and wrenched her face-first into his chest—his chin bristly on her forehead, their life vests pushing and sizzling stupidly against each other. Above them, the harnessing and parasail churned. They dropped and swerved. Weicheng could only see the ocean beyond Margaret, then the street beneath their toes—

He felt the impact like a violent heartbeat, the jar of everything slamming against the inside of his chest. As if his upper body were trying to break out of itself. Later, he couldn’t help but look up the photographs of the parasail knotted to the roof. The bodies useless below, soft and inadequate and distinct against metal and cement.

Margaret finally began to cry. Weicheng tried to tighten his arms around her shoulders; listened to the wind rush and bump across the ridges of his ears like an unaccustomed pulse. Already wondering, with a resigned dread deeper than the thought-gnawing throb of his body, about what he would need to say if they returned to the ground.


Why Hamas: The Socioeconomic and Political Foundations of the Islamists’ Popularity

2016 Lawrence Lader Prize in Expository Writing

Justin Curtis


In January 2006, the Islamic Fundamentalist Group Hamas won a commanding majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), shocking political pundits across the globe. Fatah, Hamas’s more moderate and secular political counterpart, had led by almost 18% in public opinion polls a month prior to the election and was widely expected to retain control of the PLC.[1] Under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, Fatah had had a stranglehold over Palestinian politics for much of the late 20th and early 21st century. Nonetheless, Hamas pulled off a political miracle, upending the status quo and unsettling the international community. Palestinian voters seemed to endorse Hamas’s radical Islamism at the ballot box, making a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians look like a distant fantasy. Indeed, the day following the election, the front page of the New York Times declared that Hamas’s “strong showing raises doubts on peace,” emphasizing that Hamas was a “militant Islamic party sworn to the destruction of Israel.”[2]

This prevalent, foreboding narrative of a “militant” Hamas stemmed from the Islamists’ long history of extremism. Since its inception in 1988, Hamas promulgated a steady stream of anti-Semitic propaganda, referring to Jews as “blood suckers,” “brothers of apes,” and “human pigs.”[3] Denouncing the “Nazism of the Jews,” the organization’s founding Charter champions the elimination of Israel and asserts, “The land of Palestine is an Islamic land entrusted to the Muslim generations until Judgment Day.”[4] Quoting extensively from the Quran and other canonical religious texts, the Charter proclaims, “Death for the sake of God is its most coveted desire.”[5] Accordingly, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Hamas sent suicide bombers into Israel in an attempt to derail the ongoing Oslo peace process between Israel and Fatah. Likewise, the Islamist group boycotted national elections, lambasting the PLC as a product of peace negotiations.[6] In response to Hamas’s murderous actions and wholesale rejection of diplomatic discussions, the United States, the European Union, and Israel repeatedly condemned Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Based off Hamas’s well-documented oeuvre of maximalist rhetoric and violence, it is tempting to conclude—as many did—that Hamas’s triumph in the 2006 election exposed the obstinate, anti-Semitic, and belligerent inclinations of the Palestinian populace. Considering that over three-quarters of eligible Palestinian voters cast ballots, Hamas’s triumph at first appears a forceful rejection of Israel’s right to exist. However, upon closer examination, it is clear that Hamas’s victory was predominantly indicative of rising discontent with Fatah’s authoritarian and inept regime. Frustrated by the pervasive corruption of the ruling elite, Palestinians flocked to Hamas’s calls for pragmatic socioeconomic and political reform. To be sure, Islamist hard-liners comprised Hamas’s core constituency, but many Palestinians did not vote for Hamas because of its ideological dogma. Overall, Hamas’s success in 2006 was not prima facie a setback in the peace process, nor was it emblematic of intrinsic fanaticism within Palestinian society. Rather, the 2006 PLC election elucidates that an electorate exasperated by the political and economic status quo can turn to outsiders promising change, even if those outsiders have a repugnant past. Hamas’s victory should not discourage American and Israeli policymakers from pursuing peace, but instead should underscore that Palestinian corruption and financial insecurity will need to be addressed in future diplomatic negotiations.


Before delving into why voters flocked to Hamas in 2006, it is necessary to understand why they did not remain loyal to Fatah. After all, elections are not a reflection of voters’ ideal political preferences, but instead are a choice between a small number of political entities. As evident in the current presidential campaign in the U.S., elections are not just about what people are voting for, but what people are voting against. By solely focusing on Hamas’s extremism, conventional accounts of the 2006 PLC election ignore the extent of voter antipathy towards Fatah.
In the wake of the Oslo Accords and piecemeal Israeli redeployment from the Palestinian territories, popular support for Fatah peaked in the mid-1990s.[7] In the 1996 election for the newly created PLC, a substantial majority of Palestinian voters backed Fatah’s vision for a peaceful, secular Palestinian state. Nevertheless, over the next ten years, Fatah metamorphosed into a repressive, nepotistic organization. Arafat established an extensive security force of over 40,000 men, cracking down on dissent and censoring the press.[8] Moreover, Arafat often gave key leadership positions to members of Fatah whom he had befriended while in exile in Tunisia, much to the chagrin of local Palestinian activists. At the expense of Palestinian economic development schemes, Arafat spent substantial sums of money bolstering this corps of right-hand men. After Arafat’s death in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas struggled to rein in the excessive graft, and Palestinians were quick to blame Fatah for extorting bribes and stealing money from public budgets. As of 2006, the salaries of the ever-expanding Palestinian bureaucracy swallowed up 60% of the government’s expenses.[9] According to studies by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), 74% of Palestinians in 2001 thought that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority was corrupt; by 2003, this number had climbed to 81%, and by December 2005 a staggering 86% pointed to corruption in the PA.[10] By the time Palestinians went to the polls in the 2006 PLC election, more Palestinians thought Fatah was fraudulent and incompetent than ever before.

In a similar vein, the Fatah administration was unable to prevent economic recession in the West Bank and Gaza. During the Second Intifada, Israeli forces closed off Palestinian roads in an attempt to thwart further terrorist attacks. Whether warranted or not, Israel’s actions undeniably crippled the stagnant Palestinian economy. In 1999, a year before the outbreak of the Intifada, Palestinian unemployment was at 12%; five years later, almost 1/3 of Palestinians were out of work.[11]  From 1999 to 2006, GDP per capita plunged by nearly 30 percent, and by 2006, 43% of Palestinians were impoverished.[12] These economic conditions help explain why Fatah’s popularity dwindled during the Intifada, especially amongst the lower-middle class.

In addition, as casualties from the Intifada mounted and the peace process looked all but dead, Fatah’s emphasis on a two-state solution did not excite voters. From the perspective of Palestinians, Fatah’s negotiations with Israel had failed to secure an independent Palestinian state. In the face of increasing Israeli settlements and roadblocks, Fatah’s efforts looked counterproductive. Moreover, when Israel withdrew from Gaza in the summer of 2005, a PCPSR poll showed that only 11% of Palestinians attributed the disengagement to Fatah’s diplomacy, whereas 40% credited Hamas.[13] This is not to say that Palestinians supported Hamas’s maximalist approach. PCPSR exit polls from the 2006 election reveal that 59% of voters backed the peace process, including almost 40% of Hamas supporters themselves.[14] However, only 9% of the electorate said that peace talks were their most pressing concern. Out of this 9%, close to 70% voted for Fatah, but this proved not nearly enough. Voters cared more about Fatah’s corruption and inability to ameliorate financial hardship than about seemingly hopeless diplomatic negotiations with Israel.

Quite clearly, Fatah’s socioeconomic, political, and diplomatic fiascos doomed the party’s chances in 2006. Although the politically savvy Arafat was able to mitigate internal divides within the party, his successor Abbas had no such skill. Younger Fatah supporters clamored for reform, yet Fatah’s “old guard” was reluctant to abandon the nepotistic patronage system that had benefited them so well. Unable to unify the party, Abbas watched in dismay as various Fatah factions devolved into violence. In the party’s primaries for the 2006 election, rival gangs attacked polling stations and the “old guard” rigged the vote in Gaza. Subsequently, Abbas decided to nullify the results, raising further questions about Fatah’s integrity. In the months leading up to the general election, disgruntled Fatah voters assailed government buildings, destroyed polling locations, and kidnapped members of rival clans.[15] “This spectacle,” scholar Jamil Hilal concludes, “only reinforced the image of a deeply divided party riddled with corruption and of self-interested cadres fighting for personal privileges.”[16] In response to this petty infighting, several Fatah members of the PLC even switched their party affiliation to Hamas in advance of their re-election campaigns.[17] As the election loomed, Fatah was in complete disarray.

In spite of this prevalent discord, however, Fatah’s leading policymakers did not fully accept responsibility for the party’s past failures. Convinced that the party still embodied the hopes of Palestinian nationalists, Fatah’s self-assured ruling elite ran a lackluster campaign and failed to adjust to recent changes to the Palestinian electoral system. A year earlier, the PLC had altered the procedures for future elections: in this revised process, 66 of the PLC seats were apportioned based off the national vote for each party list, and the other 66 were distributed to individual candidates who ran on the ballot of a specific district.[18] Riven by internal dissension, Fatah initially splintered into two separate blocs. Although Fatah was able to coalesce most of its support into one unified national list, several renegade candidates ran as independents at the local level, fracturing Fatah’s support in competitive districts. For example, in Jerusalem, there were four Hamas candidates, six Fatah candidates, and nineteen “independent” candidates with close ties to Fatah.[19] Thus, although Hamas won a mere 36.5% of the district-wide vote, the remaining 63.5% was split between Fatah, Fatah-affiliated independents, and fringe leftist parties like the DFLP and PFLP. Fatah’s scattered voting allowed Hamas to take a staggering 68% of the district seats (45 out of 66); Fatah wound up with just 17 seats. In the national popular vote, Fatah performed much better, winning 41.4% of the vote and 28 out the 66 seats; the Hamas list won 44.4% of the vote and 29 seats.[20] Overall, it is important to remember that Hamas won the election with a plurality, not a majority, of the votes. Hamas’s disproportionate 74 to 45 seat majority over Fatah in the PLC was largely a product of structural failures within the crumbling, outdated Fatah regime.

Fatah’s toxic brew of incompetence, disunity, and pathetic campaigning helps explain why the party lost the election, but why did this popular frustration induce 44.4% of Palestinians to vote for Hamas’s national list? After the election, media outlets often cited the fiery, maximalist rhetoric of the Charter, portraying the Islamists’ support as an expression of Palestinian religious zealotry.[21] Undoubtedly, this narrative has much truth to it. Despite the fact that several party members pushed for a more moderate approach, Hamas’s radical 1988 Charter remained the party’s founding document. Likewise, the party continued to trumpet anti-Semitic stereotypes in its periodical, Filastin al-Muslima.[22] Moreover, Hamas’s platform for the 2006 election emphasized Islamic doctrines and sharia law, proclaiming that “Islam is the solution, and it is our path for change and reform.”[23] Like its 1988 Charter, Hamas’s platform underscored that “Historic Palestine is part of the Arab and Islamic land” and that Hamas is “defending one of the greatest ports of Islam.”[24] Predictably, 52% of voters who considered themselves “religious” voted for Hamas, compared to only 40% for Fatah.[25] Similarly, 37% of Hamas’s voting bloc denied Israel’s right to exist, and after Hamas’s victory, 1/5th of Palestinian society believed that Hamas should continue to advocate for the destruction of Israel, as espoused in the 1988 Charter.[26] Undoubtedly, Hamas’s maximalist, theological rhetoric inspired many Palestinians to support the Islamist group.

However, religious extremism alone cannot account for Hamas’s success: indeed, though Hamas’s core constituency was devout Muslims, it also won 19% of voters who were “not religious” and 5% of Palestinian Christians.[27] Furthermore, while many Palestinians voted for Hamas out of ideological hatred for Israel, it is also noteworthy that 63% of Hamas’s voters did not endorse the party’s refusal to recognize the Jewish state.[28]  Why, then, did these voters turn to Hamas?

On the campaign trail, Hamas effectively framed the election as a choice between itself and a corrupt, inefficient, and outdated regime. The Islamist group made a concerted effort to come across as a progressive alternative to Fatah, even changing its name to the "Change and Reform” party in advance of the election.[29] Although Hamas’s electoral platform referenced Islamic dogma, the party downplayed its more extremist, Islamist rhetoric. A significant portion of Hamas’s 2006 platform was spent discussing “public freedoms” and common-sense “administrative reform,” hardly the talk of revolutionary radicals.[30] Pledging a variety of anti-corruption initiatives, Hamas subtly rebuked Fatah’s double-dealing and profiteering. In a similar vein, Hamas promised to “stress transparency and accountability in dealing with public funds,” emphasizing that taxpayer money would go to economic development projects, not to fraudulent bureaucrats.[31] Moreover, Hamas denounced the excessive authority of the federal government, advocating for “political pluralism and the rotation of power.”[32] Outlining reforms to the judiciary and legislative branches, Hamas sounded less like a terrorist cabal and more like reform-minded technocrats.

As a whole, Hamas’s pre-election rhetoric mostly focused on political pragmatism, not ideology. Historian Menachem Klein points out, Hamas’s “2006 platform is written in an idiom that stands in sharp contrast to the high, idealistic language of the Islamic Charter of 1988.”[33] Hamas’s message of “change and reform” was certainly a far cry from the grandiose invocations of jihad and violent rebellion that pervaded Hamas’s earlier rhetoric. By shying away from its past militancy, Hamas was able to develop a broad-based coalition of Islamists and seculars alike. Though some Palestinians flocked to Hamas out of ideological concerns and opposition to Israeli settlements, others were enticed by Hamas’s promises for political reform. Exasperated by Fatah’s corruption, Palestinians welcomed Hamas’s clarion calls for accountability and good governance. According to PCPSR exit polls, almost 50% of Palestinian voters considered Hamas the most capable of taking on corruption, whereas only 37.2% thought that Fatah was.[34] Given that 24.6% of Palestinians viewed corruption as their “most important consideration” when voting, it should come as no shock that Hamas carried the day. Unsurprisingly, 71% of those who prioritized anti-corruption initiatives voted for Hamas. As Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian teacher at Al Quds University, reflected, “After 40 years {of Fatah rule}, it’s almost natural... That the opposition came from a radical Islamic group is unfortunate, but there was no other serious opposition.”[35] Leftist parties like the DFLP and PFLP also promised political reforms, but they had close ties to the Fatah-led PA and their anti-corruption measures were met with skepticism. As a party operating outside of the political establishment, Hamas could present itself as a viable alternative to an unscrupulous Fatah-led bureaucracy.

Moreover, Hamas recognized that the declining socioeconomic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza had shifted the priorities of the Palestinian electorate. As Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad pondered, “How can we promise Jerusalem and the right of return when we can’t deliver our people a loaf of bread?”[36] Consequently, Hamas’s 2006 electoral platform paid much greater attention to social welfare services than its 1988 Charter. Underscoring its “commitment to our steadfast masses,” Hamas devoted several articles to “economic, financial, and fiscal policies,” “labor issues,” “agriculture policy,” “women, children and family issues,” “health and environment policy,” “youth issues,” and “social policy.”[37] Hamas particularly concentrated on education, expounding upon the need to invest heavily in everything from elementary schools to universities.[38] In contrast, the 1988 Charter barely mentions education, and even then, only in a religious context.[39] Moreover, contending that it would free the Palestinian economy from Israeli control, Hamas re-directed its ideological hostility toward Israel into concrete socioeconomic proposals. In its section on “housing policy,” Hamas vowed to “tackle the problems of densely populated areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip” and “focus on the construction sector by eliciting easy repayment and financing.”[40] Furthermore, eager to increase tourism revenues, Hamas called for better sports stadiums and “more public green spaces.” With the Palestinian economy collapsing and no peace process on the horizon, Hamas’s emphasis on “social support networks” and “workable pension systems” had widespread appeal.[41] While only 40% of upper-class Palestinian voters cast their ballots for Hamas, 46% of lower-income voters supported the Islamic group.[42] Hamas’s message of “change and reform” also resonated with the working-class vote, as more merchants and professionals voted for Hamas than for Fatah. Aligning its rhetoric with the aspirations of Palestinian workers, Hamas offered enticing solutions to the economic problems that the ruling Fatah elite had been unable to solve.

Hamas’s socioeconomic platform was not just empty rhetoric; ever since 1988, Hamas had been providing extra-governmental social welfare services to lower-middle class Palestinians who had been left behind by Fatah’s policies. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Islamic charities (zakats) offered critical monetary support to impoverished Palestinians. Despite the fact that the PA’s Ministry of Awqaf was technically in charge of the zakats, Hamas’s grassroots movement had forged tight-knit relations with these charities, and many Hamas policymakers had served at the head of the organizations.[43] This extensive network of Hamas-affiliated zakats proved instrumental in Hamas’s rise, especially during the economic downturn triggered by the Second Intifada. Considering that Hamas’s charities often worked closely with housewives, it is no surprise that housewives were an integral component of Hamas’s voting bloc in 2006.[44] Hamas also offered alternatives to PA-run schools and social services. Funded by foreign donors, Hamas established youth organizations, orphanages, libraries, and athletic, medical, vocational, and educational facilities. Hamas organized mass weddings and child-care services for poor Palestinian couples as well.[45] These routine actions rarely made newspaper headlines like Hamas’s terrorism did, but they provide crucial context to Hamas’s electoral success. With the central Fatah government unable to provide basic social services to many Palestinians, Hamas was able to step in and address communities that felt neglected. Consequently, a vote for Hamas was not simply a vote for radical Islamism, but oftentimes a vote for food, jobs, financial security, and the other unmet needs of the average Palestinian.

These zakats and other programs laid the groundwork for Hamas’s political success. By 2006, Islamic organizations provided aid to 16% of the Palestinian population.[46] Thus, over the course of the depression in the early 2000s, lower-class Palestinians began to gravitate toward the Islamist party. In 1997, three years prior to the outbreak of the Intifada, approximately 1/6th of Palestinian society thought that Hamas protected the lower class; seven years later, a staggering 58% thought so, in juxtaposition to the 35% that believed Fatah fought for the poor.[47] Hamas rode this momentum to a monumental victory in the 2005 municipal elections, which vaulted Hamas policymakers into key positions of power at a local level and set the stage for Hamas’s triumph a year later.[48] Hamas’s charitable endeavors not only gave the organization a forum to spread its religious message, but they also were a lynchpin to the Islamists’ platform of socioeconomic progressivism.   

Additionally, both in 2005 and 2006, Hamas relied upon these Islamic social service organizations to win over grassroots support. At the start of its 2006 campaign, Hamas intentionally crafted a list of candidates from zakats, social welfare groups, and middle-class professions. This so-called “dream team” gave credence to Hamas’s focus on socioeconomic reforms.[49] Moreover, the Islamic party parlayed its connections with zakats into a critical campaign tool. According to Haim Malka of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Hamas drew on employees from its network of mosques, schools, zakat committees, and other charitable organizations for voter registration drives, door to door information campaigns, campaign rallies, and polling station workers.”[50] With an estimated 10,000 volunteers in Gaza, Hamas owed much of its success to its powerful “get out the vote” machine. Malka also hypothesizes that Hamas’s candidates used data from its affiliated zakats in order to target poorer Palestinian voters who were dependent on Islamic welfare organizations and would be most receptive to the party’s socioeconomic plans.

Perhaps most importantly, Hamas’s methodical voter mobilization easily outclassed the Palestinian Left’s less-than-stellar campaign tactics. Though the DFLP and PFLP promised similar socioeconomic reforms and appealed to much of Hamas’s voter base, the leftists struggled to win over the anti-Fatah vote.[51] With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Left was deprived of a hitherto reliable source of funding.[52] As a result, in the years prior to the 2006 election, leftist parties became increasingly unable to consolidate support from the lower and middle classes. Like Fatah, leftists were so fragmented in the 2006 race that they ran on several different tickets, paving the way for the better-organized Hamas candidates to squeak out a plurality of the vote. Despite being political outsiders, Hamas proved quite adept at nitty-gritty campaign politics.


Upon further analysis, Hamas’s triumph in 2006 was not necessarily an endorsement of the intransigent, anti-Semitic rhetoric of its 1988 Charter. Instead, Hamas’s success can largely be attributed to its populist calls for socioeconomic and political reform, which enticed Palestinian voters who were fed up with the status quo. Translating the grassroots support for its social welfare services into an effective campaign strategy, Hamas outsmarted its competitors. While Fatah was mired in internal divisions and split its vote, Hamas presented Palestinians with a clear-cut alternative to Fatah’s incompetency. Buoyed by these 2006 results, Hamas has remained a key political power-player ever since, particularly in the Gaza Strip. Unfortunately, although some Hamas officials have pushed back against the 1988 Charter and advocated for more moderate policies, Hamas as a whole has shown little inclination to abandon its violent tactics. Nonetheless, in the wake of Hamas’s recent terrorism, one must consider the multifaceted roots to Hamas’s popularity before pigeonholing the Palestinians as fanatical hard-liners. Characterizing Hamas’s 2006 success as proof of Palestinian extremism is not just factually incorrect, but counterproductive for the peace process as well. This flawed narrative sows distrust between Palestinian, Israeli, and American policymakers, and distorts the aspirations of the Palestinian populace. Instead, it is far more useful to recognize that corruption and socioeconomic instability are still pressing problems that any comprehensive diplomatic negotiation will need to answer. If these issues go unaddressed, the more extreme voices within the Palestinian polity will continue to be able to turn popular unrest into electoral victories.



“Bent on Israel's destruction, Hamas emerged as a force,” USA Today, 5 January 2009. http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezpprod1.hul.harvard.edu/ehost/detail/detail?.... Accessed April 24th, 2016.

Brown, Nathan. “Aftermath of the Hamas Tsunami.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. http://carnegieendowment.org/files/BrownHamasWebCommentary.pdf. Accessed April 24th, 2016.

Central Elections Commission-Palestine. The second 2006 PLC elections. http://web.archive.org/web/20070609214833/http://www.elections.ps/pdf/Fi.... Accessed April 24th, 2016.

Cleveland, William and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2013.

Eisenbud, Daniel. “Hamas Claims Responsibility for Jerusalem Bus Bombing,” The Jerusalem Post, 20 April 2016. http://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Hamas-claims-responsibility-f.... Accessed May 8th, 2016.

Erlanger, Steven. ““Victory Ends 40 Years of Political Domination by Arafat's Party,” New York Times, 26 January 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/26/international/ middleeast/26cnd-hamas.html?pagewanted=all. Accessed April 24th, 2016.

Erlanger, Steven and Greg Myre. “Strong Showing Raises Doubts on Peace,” New York Times, 26 January 2006. http://search.proquest. com.ezpprod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpnewyorktimes/docview/93200172/6CAF7566D52748E0PQ/1?accountid=11311.

“Hamas ahoy!; Palestine’s election,” The Economist, 21 January 2006. http://search.proquest.com.ezpprod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/224014181?rf.... Accessed April 24th, 2006.

Herzog, Michael. “Can Hamas Be Tamed?” Foreign Affairs (2006).

Hilal, Jamil. “Hamas's Rise as Charted in the Polls, 1994–2005.” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Spring 2006). http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/jps.2006.35.3.6.  Accessed April 24th, 2016.

Hroub, Khaled. “A ‘New Hamas’ through Its New Documents.” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Summer 2006).  http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/jps.2006.35.4.6. Accessed April 24th, 2016.

Jamal, Manal. “Beyond Fateh Corruption and Mass Discontent: Hamas, the Palestinian Left and the 2006 Legislative Elections,” British Journal (2013). http://ejournals.ebsco.com.ezpprod1.hul. harvard.edu/Direct.asp?AccessToken=8U0P4PWV0N01J3OKTW1U0F1XN94JVWOWO3&Show=Object. Accessed April 24th, 2016.

Klein, Menachem. “Hamas in Power.” Middle East Journal (2007).

Leggett, Karby. “Palestinians May Boost Hamas In Vote, Challenging U.S., Israel,” Wall Street Journal, 21 January 2006. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/398989606? rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo

Litvak, Meir. “The Islamization of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Case of Hamas.” Middle Eastern Studies (1998)

----------. “The Anti-Semitism of Hamas.” Palestine-Israel Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2&3 (2005). http://www.pij.org/details.php?id=345. Accessed May 8th, 2016.

Malka, Haim. “Hamas Resistance and the Transformation of Palestinian Society.” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 28 Dec, 2007. http://csis.org/files/publication/071228_haimmalka .pdf. Accessed April 24th, 2016.

Ottolenghi, Emanuele. “Hamas Without Veils,” The National Review, January 26, 2006. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/216611/hamas-without-veils-emanuel...

Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Special Public Opinion Poll on the Upcoming Palestinian Elections. 29 Dec-1 Jan 2006. http://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/476.  Accessed April 24th, 2016.

----------. Public Opinion Poll. 21 January 2006. http://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/477. Accessed April 24th, 2016.

----------. Public Opinion Poll. 19-24 December 2001. http://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/252. Accessed April 24th, 2016.

----------. Public Opinion Poll. 3-7 April 2003. http://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/248. Accessed April 24th, 2016.

----------. Public Opinion Poll. 6-9 December 2005. http://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/237. Accessed April 24th, 2016.

----------. Public Opinion Poll. 7-9 September 2005. http://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/238. Accessed April 24th, 2016.

----------. Results of PSR Exit Polls For Palestinian PLC Elections. 15 February 2006. http://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/478. Accessed April 24th, 2016.

Pina, Aaron. “Palestinian Elections.” CRS Report for Congress. 9 February 2006. https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33269.pdf. Accessed April 24th, 2016.

Regular, Arnon. “Hamas Aims to Win 60 Percent of PLC Seats,” Haaretz, 11 December, 2005. http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/features/hamas-aims-to-win-60-perce.... Accessed April 24th, 2016.

Stephen, Angela. Most Palestinians Believe Hamas Should Change its Position on Eliminating Israel. March 2, 2006. http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/brmiddleeastnafricara/17.... Accessed April 24th, 2016.

The Hamas Charter. 1988. file:///Users/Justin/Downloads/Hamas%20charter.pdf. Accessed April 24th, 2016.

Turner, Mandy. “The Power of ‘Shock and Awe’: The Palestinian Authority and the Road to Reform,” International Peacekeeping (2009). http://ejournals.ebsco.com.ezpprod1.hul.harvard.edu/Direct .asp?AccessToken=3P1XSXN812DQLO-MZO-0EXLT0--P8NDNDL&Show=Object. Accessed April 24th, 2016.

Usher, Graham. “The Democratic Resistance: Hamas, Fatah, and the Palestinian Elections,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Spring 2006). http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/ jps.2006.35.3.20. Accessed April 24th, 2016.


[1] Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Public Opinion Poll, 19-24 December 2001, http://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/252 (accessed April 24th, 2016).

[2] Steven Erlanger and Greg Myre, “Strong Showing Raises Doubts on Peace,” New York Times, Jan 26, 2006http://search.proquest.com.ezp- prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpnewyorktimes  /docview/93200172/6CAF7566D52748E0PQ/1?accountid=11311 (accessed August 29th, 2016).

[3] Quoted in Hamas Handbills Nos 1, 4, 5, 6, 8, 14, 30, 31, 32, 33, 65, in Meir Litvak, “The Islamization of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Case of Hamas,” Middle Eastern Studies (1998), 151.

[4] Quoted in The Hamas Charter, 1988, p. 280. 273, file:///Users/Justin/Downloads/Hamas%20charter.pdf (accessed April 24th, 2016).

[5] Quoted in The Hamas Charter, 272.

[6] Khaled Hroub, “A ‘New Hamas’ through Its New Documents,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Summer 2006): 6, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/jps.2006.35.4.6 (accessed April 24th, 2016).

[7] Jamil Hilal,  “Hamas's Rise as Charted in the Polls, 1994–2005,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 35, No. 3: 7, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/jps.2006.35.3.6 (accessed April 24th, 2016).

[8] William Cleveland and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, 471, 463.

[9] Mandy Turner, “The Power of ‘Shock and Awe’: The Palestinian Authority and the Road to Reform,” International Peacekeeping (2009): 569, http://ejournals.ebsco.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/Direct.asp?AccessTo..., (accessed April 24th, 2016), 569.

[10] Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Public Opinion Poll, 19-24 December 2001, http://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/252. (accessed April 24th, 2016); Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Public Opinion Poll, 3-7 April 2003, http://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/248. (accessed April 24th, 2016); Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Public Opinion Poll, 6-9 December 2005. http://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/237. (accessed April 24th, 2016).

[11] Turner, “The Power of ‘Shock and Awe,’”569.

[12] Pina, “Palestinian Elections,” 3.

[13] Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Public Opinion Poll, 7-9 September 2005, http://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/238. (accessed April 24th, 2016).

[14] Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Results of PSR Exit Polls For Palestinian PLC Elections, 15 February 2006, http://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/478. (accessed April 24th, 2016).

[15] Manal Jamal, “Beyond Fateh Corruption and Mass Discontent: Hamas, the Palestinian Left and the 2006 Legislative Elections,” British Journal (2013): 284, http://ejournals.ebsco.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/Direct.asp?AccessTo.... (accessed April 24th, 2016); Arnon Regular, “Hamas Aims to Win 60 Percent of PLC Seats,” Haaretz, 11 December 2005, http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/features/hamas-aims-to-win-60-perce... (accessed April 24th, 2016); Nathan Brown, “Aftermath of the Hamas Tsunami,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: 2, http://carnegieendowment.org/files /BrownHamasWebCommentary.pdf (accessed April 24th, 2016); Graham Usher, “The Democratic Resistance: Hamas, Fatah, and the Palestinian Elections,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Spring 2006): 24-25, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/jps.2006.35.3.20 (accessed April 24th, 2016).

[16] Quoted in Hilal,  “Hamas's Rise as Charted in the Polls,” 17.

[17] Regular, “Hamas Aims to Win 60 Percent.”

[18] Aaron Pina, “Palestinian Elections,” CRS Report for Congress, 9 February 2006, p. 10, https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33269.pdf (accessed April 24th, 2016); Hilal, “Hamas's Rise as Charted in the Polls,” 17.

[19] Menachem Klein, “Hamas in Power,” Middle East Journal (2007): 448.

[20] Usher, “The Democratic Resistance,” 26; Hilal,  “Hamas's Rise as Charted in the Polls,” 17.

[21] Emanuele Ottolenghi, “Hamas Without Veils,” January 26, 2006, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/216611/hamas-without-veils-emanuel...

[22] Meir Litvak, “The Anti-Semitism of Hamas,” Palestine-Israel Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2&3 (2005) http://www.pij.org/details.php?id=345 (accessed May 8th, 2016).

[23] Quoted in Electoral Platform for Change and Reform, in Hroub, “A ‘New Hamas’ through Its New Documents,” 14.

[24] Quoted in Electoral Platform for Change and Reform, in Hroub, “A ‘New Hamas’ through Its New Documents,” 9, 8.

[25] Haim Malka, “Hamas Resistance and the Transformation of Palestinian Society,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 28 Dec, 2007: 5, http://csis.org/files/

publication/071228_haimmalka.pdf (accessed April 24th, 2016); Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Results of PSR Exit Polls.

[26] Angela Stephen, Most Palestinians Believe Hamas Should Change its Position on

Eliminating Israel, March 2, 2006, http://www.worldpublicopinion.org /pipa/articles/brmiddleeastnafricara/173.php (accessed April 24th, 2016).

[27] Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Results of PSR Exit Polls.

[28] Stephen, Most Palestinians Believe.

[29] Brown, “Aftermath of the Hamas Tsunami,” 8, Hroub, “A ‘New Hamas’ through Its New Documents,” 10.

[30] Quoted in Electoral Platform for Change and Reform, in Hroub, “A ‘New Hamas’ through Its New Documents,” 9.

[31] Quoted in Electoral Platform for Change and Reform, in Hroub, “A ‘New Hamas’ through Its New Documents,” 11.

[32] Quoted in Electoral Platform for Change and Reform, in Hroub, “A ‘New Hamas’ through Its New Documents,” 8.

[33] Quoted in Klein, “Hamas in Power,” 450.

[34] Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Results of PSR Exit Polls.

[35] Quoted in Daoud Kuttab, quoted in Steven Erlanger, “Victory Ends 40 Years of Political Domination by Arafat's Party,” New York Times, 26 January 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/26/international/middleeast/26cnd-hamas.h... (accessed April 24th, 2016).

[36] Quoted in Ghazi Hamad, quoted in Usher, “The Democratic Resistance,” 21.

[37] Quoted in Electoral Platform for Change and Reform, in Hroub, “A ‘New Hamas’ through Its New Documents,” 8,9.

[38]Electoral Platform for Change and Reform, in Hroub, “A ‘New Hamas’ through Its New Documents,” 12,13.

[39] Klein, “Hamas in Power,” 452.

[40] Quoted in Electoral Platform for Change and Reform, in Hroub, “A ‘New Hamas’ through Its New Documents,” 12.

[41] Quoted in Electoral Platform for Change and Reform, in Hroub, “A ‘New Hamas’ through Its New Documents,” 13.

[42] Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Results of PSR Exit Polls.

[43] Malka, “Hamas Resistance and the Transformation of Palestinian Society,” 2, 11.

[44] Hilal,  “Hamas's Rise as Charted in the Polls,” 15.

[45] Malka, “Hamas Resistance and the Transformation of Palestinian Society,” 6, 9, 10, 13.

[46] Malka, “Hamas Resistance and the Transformation of Palestinian Society,” 11.

[47] Hilal,  “Hamas's Rise as Charted in the Polls,” 12.

[48] Jamal, “Beyond Fateh Corruption,” 291.

[49] Quoted in Regular, “Hamas Aims to Win 60 Percent.”

[50] Quoted in Malka, “Hamas Resistance and the Transformation of Palestinian Society,” 18.

[51] Jamal, “Beyond Fateh Corruption,” 277, 279.

[52] Pina, “Palestinian Elections,” 5.