The Curious Case of Otto Warmbier

Human beings often use words without understanding their full semantics or definition. Torture is one of those words. The reality of torture, in its actual definition and context, will remain an unknown experience for majority of humanity. Torture, for some, is part of their new normal. The purpose of this blog is to look briefly at the human rights violation of torture through the lens of cultural relativism and moral universalism.

a photo of a prison
Prison. Source: daily sunny, Creative Commons

A similar story

In 1994, 19-year-old American Michael Fay lived in Singapore. He made international headlines when a conviction of vandalism and sentencing to six lashes by caning became his punishment. Caning is a part of the corporal punishment system in Singapore. Most recently, a Saudi diplomat received caning lashes for molestation. At the time of Fay’s arrest, President Clinton described the punishment as too harsh, and the Singaporean government reduced the lashes to four. Fay received his lashes and returned home. I mention Fay as an entry point for Otto Warmbier.

I followed Warmbier’s case when it began in January 2016. He was a student from the University of Virginia, sentenced by the North Korean government to 15 years of hard labor over offensive behavior while on a backpacking tour in the country. The accusation brought against him of trying to steal a sign from the hotel where he was staying, resulted in an immediate conviction, considering the action as a “hostile act” and attempt to hurt the working class of Koreans by undermining solidarity. Theft in the People’s Republic of Korea (PRK), regardless of object or size, often results in a public execution or beatings in prison camps and schoolyards as a means for deterring future behaviors. He is an enemy of the state.

Amnesty International notes North Korea’s propensity for arbitrary arrests and detentions. The US State department, at the time of his arrest, called for his immediate release, stating the punishment is “unduly harsh” and if he had been in any other country, the incident would not have resulted in this treatment or conviction. Warmbier, after 18 months as a prisoner in North Korea, died on June 19 in Ohio, following a “humanitarian gesture” of release by the North Koreans.

My initial interest in Otto was his reasoning/logic for travelling to the totalitarian “hermit kingdom” without knowledge of the culture. Yes, due to the fact, he is an American citizen, an appeal for his release and return was a correct gesture by the State Department at the time. However, if he was released in January 2016, what would he or anyone else have learned from that exchange? As Americans, we have cultivated and bought into an American exceptionalism ideology that often highlights our ignorance of international cultural norms and behaviors, thereby positioning us with the short end of the stick. Our American exceptionalism repetitively accuses other countries of torturous treatment of prisoners and other Americans, yet we somehow fail to see the plank in our own eye.

Cultural relativism

The men in both cases were accused, convicted, sentenced, and received punishment in accordance of the laws in the nations where they were guests. The US government described both punishments as torturous or unfair treatment. Many comments and explanations made and given spoke of the men’s character; however, no one mentioned about their knowledge of the culture of the country’s they visited (lived in, in Fay’s case) or the choice each man made that resulted in a behavior that was punishable by law. Perhaps these men are innocent of the crimes; only they know.

Sally Engle Merry suggests the misunderstanding over culture and human rights narrows to whether the application of rights is culturally relative or universal. She asserts that “Rights are understood as a uniquely Western idea… Culture, on the other hand, is understood as homogenous, integrated system of belief and values attached to a relatively small and isolated group of people. It was this conception of culture which spawned relativism as a moral perspective. Cultural relativism is the social discipline that comes of respect for differences – of mutual respect.” She concedes our understanding of culture informs our knowledge of rights. The notion of human rights found their basis in the identification and protection of civil and political rights, as determined by cultures willing to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Since 1948, human rights have expanded, and continue to expand, to include the global collective of humanity, framed and spoken in “the preeminent global language of social justice. The changes correlate with some fluid elements of national cultures like McDonaldization, the use of smartphones and social media; changing and adapting to global influences like globalization. In other words, globalization and the application of human rights are determined by and dependent upon the pliable features of a national culture. PRK remains a significant outlier because of national sovereignty.

In “Human Rights along the Grapevine”, Mark Goodale agrees with Merry using a clarifying caveat. He points out that the writers of the UDHR did so with an “anti-internationalism” delegation in mind. To Roosevelt, the understanding and implementation of the UDHR for citizens in countries closed to creating laws that protected human rights, “a curious grapevine” would bring to pass the information about the new normative system. As individuals learned about their human rights, they could initiate a change in culture, from the bottom-up, which cultivates a new national culture that honors the universality of human rights, through the respect and honoring of human rights on a national level first. He suggests the UDHR provides a standard by which global humanity can identity and measure the protection or violation of human rights under specific governments, particularly regarding repression and subjugation. It is important to know that the UDHR does not and cannot override national sovereignty. National sovereignty reigns supreme when it comes to what takes place within the borders of a country. Do human rights require acceptance on an individual country basis—culturally relative–or should they find recognition and protection through global application? Returning to the Warmbier case, let us look at the accusation of the torture by the US.

a picture of the inside of Port Arthur Prison
Prison at Port Arthur. Source: Dushan Hanuska, Creative Commons.

Torture: Pot meet kettle

Torture, for Callaway and Harrell-Stephenson, is the most significant human rights violation because it not only violates the individual but also instills a system of fear within a society, removing a sense of security. Several international law, covenants, conventions and declarations conclude that torture is a direct violation of a person’s rights and dignity. Article Five of the UDHR states, “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Article Two of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) reads, “Each state party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.” The United States is a state party to the CAT, yet even in the declaration of agreement, there is a stipulation that invokes national sovereignty:

That the United States considers itself bound by the obligation under article 16 to prevent `cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’, only insofar as the term `cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ means the cruel, unusual and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States

It is tempting to think totalitarian and authoritarian regimes are uniquely guilty of torturous actions. Bobby Sands of Ireland as well as former prisoners of Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo), and the photographic evidence from Abu Ghraib are reminders that democratic governments, including the US, can also perpetrate human rights violations. Let us briefly discuss Gitmo and Abu Ghraib as examples of how America treats enemies of the state and prisoners of war based upon the conditions the government stated within the CAT.

“It is very, very scary when you are tortured by someone who doesn’t believe in torture…” Ahmed Errachidi

Callaway and Harrell-Stephenson observe that for the Nazis, the removal of Jews to concentration camps brought about an ‘out of sight, out of minds’ perspective to the population. Apuzzo, Fink, and Risen assert the denial of torture as “enhanced interrogation techniques” positions the US as an entity that contradicts its values by employing tactics that stand in direct opposition to those values. In their article, they present the case that the US frequently conducts arbitrary arrests based upon nonexistent or flimsy evidence. Arrests regularly fails to provide due process to those in custody, flagrantly participates in behaviors where the lines remain blurred as “amounted to torture or succeeded in extracting intelligence”, and discard prisoners without explanation or charges to return to their home countries and families as shells of who they once were.

Gitmo is synonymous with the torture of prisoners by the US. Testimonies of former prisoners, interrogators, physicians, and medical and government documentation speak to the humiliating and abusive tactics utilized by American soldiers and CIA personnel to obtain “information” which could be used to capture and prosecute additional enemies of the state. However, as mentioned in the 60 Minutes interview, torture may not result in the victim providing useful information. The prisoner simply says what is necessary to end the suffering.

Former President George W. Bush determined waterboarding, a technique that stimulates the feeling of drowning and induces stress, does not constituting torture. President Obama in 2009 disagreed, banned its use by the US, and sought to close Gitmo during his presidency. During the 2016 election, Donald Trump promised to reinstate waterboarding and torturous acts, stating, “I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” The collection of stories in the NY Times piece is consistent with the photographs from Abu Ghraib. The photos taken by American soldiers reveal the dishonoring, degrading, and torturous action inflicted upon prisoners of war in American custody. Given our treatment of prisoners, whether actual enemies of the state or someone arrested due to mistaken identity, America has little credibility when attempting to call out PRK on torture.

The line between cultural relativism and universality is thin. The United States, as active perpetrators of torture and degrading punishment including waterboarding, stands cheek-to-cheek with the country it seeks to name and shame into submission. The Curious Case of Otto Warmbier challenges the authority of national sovereignty and cultural relativism in the light of human rights and their universal application. The call to protect human rights is an all or nothing call; there is no in-between. To stand on the values of truth, justice, and law for one person, one area or country, you must stand for it for all persons, areas or countries.

 

The Transgender Military Ban, Part 2: Costs to the American Transgender Community

A bathroom sign titled "All Gender"
Asheville’s response to NC Bathroom Bill. Source: Bradley Griffin, Creative Commons.

On July 26th, 2017 President Donald J. Trump tweeted the following:

“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow… Transgender individuals to  serve in any capacity in the U. S. Military.  Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming… victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you”

The Real Cost to Transgender Americans

Transgender individuals, many of whom already face daily harassment and discrimination for their gender identity, have been shown to actively avoid situations where hostile confrontations may arise.  In 2016, after a political storm erupted out of North Carolina and the then-governor Pat McCrory’s “Bathroom Bill”, a landmark study on the lives of 27,715 transgender persons documented several startling changes that occurred in the lives of transgender persons.  These include:

  • 59% of transgender persons avoiding bathrooms for feared confrontations
  • 12% report being harassed, attacked, or sexually assaulted
  • 31% avoiding eating or drinking to avoid needing to use public restrooms
  • 8% contracting a kidney or urinary tract infection as a potential consequence for avoiding the use of public restrooms

Similar studies also document the prolonged and repeated stress endured by transgender individuals, when using public restrooms, after the “Bathroom Bill” was proposed.  Situations in which their minority status is negatively highlighted or emphasized, such as the use of public restrooms, are loaded events for transgender individuals. Until recently, the link between a culture of antagonism towards issues related to transgender individuals and the subjective experiences of these individuals themselves has been suspected but unsupported. A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology examined the gravest mental health crisis experienced by transgender persons: suicide.

Transgender individuals, as compared to the general public, are 14 times more likely to think about committing suicide and 22 times more likely to attempt suicide.  This horrifying trend holds in countries outside of the United States, and these rates may even be higher in transgender adolescents.  With this new data and analysis, the role of culture, across 2 different theoretical models, was shown to significantly impact the rate of suicide ideation in transgender individuals.  Suicide ideation was significantly predicted by factors such as victimization (specific attacks on an individual for their status as transgender), rejection (social reluctance to engage with transgender individuals), and non-affirmation (the active reminding of a transgender individual their gender identity is not accepted or validated).  To restate the findings, transgender individuals were more likely to seriously contemplate suicide, or wantonly envision a future in which they are not alive, if surrounded by a culture characterized by isolation, discrimination, and outright antagonism.  An important caveat remains: researchers will never be able to interview transgender individuals who have completed the act of suicide.  The ‘edge point’, or the final motive impelling a transgender individual to successfully end their own life, can be hinted at but will never be known with absolute certainty.  However, combining previous research on the statistical likelihood of suicide and suicidal ideation in transgender individuals, coupled with the recently supported theory that culture is a major implicator in the suicide risk of transgender individuals, presents the concerned public with startling information.  For these victimized individuals, a culture of transphobia can exacerbate a predisposition for suicide, potentially resulting in a public health crisis with deadly results.

a spray painted sign of Trans Lives Matter
Source: Dimitra Linardou, Creative Commons

Culture, according to Riane Eisler, is in constant flux.  People choose both their internal response to the forces of culture around them and their externally exertion of control over culture in future interactions with others.  According to Eisler’s Cultural Transformation Theory, a culture of transphobia (the ignorance, fear, or outright hatred of transgender individuals) can change to a culture of empathy, partnership, and mutual understanding.  Likewise, a culture of tentative acceptance can be quickly reversed to one of arbitrary discrimination and empowered domination.  One way a pro-social Eislierian cultural transformation for transgender persons can occur is through the creation, maintenance, and protection of human rights for transgender individuals (Eisler, 1988).  In the United States, transgender rights have a high degree on variance, mostly along state or jurisdiction lines (a graph displaying specific issues related to transgender rights in the US can be found here).  The scant federal rulings on the rights of transgender persons have involved only a few aspects of life for transgender persons, including discrimination in the workplace, marriage equality, and conversion therapy.  The rights of trans persons are still in flux, and the Trump Administration may indeed roll back these protections as their time in governance continues.  Rollbacks of trans rights might, as is supported by Testa et al.’s and the National Center for Transgender Equality’s research, create a public health crisis for transgender persons.  Creating a culture accepting of and empathic to the needs of transgender persons must include comprehensive human rights legislation protecting this vulnerable group without fear of retraction from a hostile administration, such as the Trump administration.

President Trump, under the guise of “medical costs” and unit “disruption”, attempted to used his public platform to instill a culture of blatant disregard for the patriotism, self-sacrifice, and protection of freedom offered by transgender persons who volunteered, volunteer, and may yet volunteer to serve in the United States Armed Forces.  The costs he associated with transgender persons serving in the military are non-issues, and a sober analysis of his proposed logic illuminates a stunning disconnect from the actual militaristic consequences of allowing transgender persons to serve in the US Armed Forces.  The literature, including both personal and academic accounts, reveals a population within America severely prone to self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts in the aftermath of public controversies regarding a fundamental part of their very identity.  The oppression of the transgender community has been shown to have far-reaching and oftentimes permanent consequences for trans persons- such as suicide.  The cost to the trans community from attacks such as these far outweigh the illusory costs to the Trump Administration in allowing trans persons to live a life unencumbered by blatant discrimination.

 

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide or self-harm, here are resources to contact:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (press 1 if you are a US military veteran in crisis): 1-800-273-8255

Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860

The Trevor Project (youth service): 1-866-488-7386

GLBT National Help Hotline: 1-888-843-4564

 

Call 911 if you believe there is an immediate threat to your and / or someone else’s physical safety and wellbeing.

 

References

Eisler, R. (1988).  The Chalice and the Blade.  San Fransico: Harper.

The Transgender Military Ban, Part 1: Costs to President Trump

President Donald J. Trump tweeted the following on July 26, 2017:

“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow… Transgender individuals to  serve in any capacity in the U. S. Military.  Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming… victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you”

President Trump shrugs at a political rally
Source: Curt Johnson, Creative Commons

A History of Inclusion

The service of members of the LGBTQIA community in the US military has remained a highly contentious and passionately-fought issue on all sides of the political (and gender) spectrum.  The battle for inclusion in the American Armed Forces first involved inclusion along ethnic lines, then involving lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, and more recently the rights of transgender persons to openly serve.

On July 26th, 1948 President Harry S. Truman signed into effect Executive Order 9981: Establishing the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services.  The order essentially desegregated the United States Armed Forces, stating “… there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin”.  President Trump’s tweet banning the service of transgender American soldiers comes on the 69th anniversary of President Truman’s executive order.  This Executive Order jumpstarted the battle for inclusion in the American Armed Forces, first included ethnic lines, then sexual orientation, and finally gender identity.

President Bill Clinton, in October of 1993, executed a new law known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, and Don’t Harass”, though it’s commonly referred to as “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT).  DADT reversed the long-standing statutory ban on gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals from serving in the United States military. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals had long served in the US military with their sexuality largely kept secret.  DADT was first met by suspicion and hostility from many politicians and military personnel alike, citing fears of ‘undermining morale’ if gays, lesbians, and bisexuals were permitted to serve in any capacity.  Again, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals had long served the US military, but not to the explicit knowledge of their commanding officers or fellow servicemen and servicewomen.

President Barack Obama, in December of 2010, after both the House of Representatives and US Senate successfully voted to repeal the practice, signed into law a full reversal on DADT. The practice of forbidding gay, lesbian, and bisexual service-members to be ‘out’ about their sexuality and serve in the US military was effectively over.

Throughout the battles fought for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals to openly serve in the military, transgender individuals were explicitly told they must ‘pass’ as their biological sex if they wished to serve in the US military.  Transgender persons have myriad ways of expressing their sexual orientation, including: dressing in accordance with their gender identification, changing their name, hormone treatment, and medical procedures that alter their body to conform with their gender identity.  So far as the military was concerned, transgender individuals could be threatened with discharge for an enlistment violation if they did not ‘pass’ as their sex assigned at birth.  That is, until June of 2016, when Secretary of Defense Ash Carter lifted the ban on transgender individuals from openly serving.  In his public statement on the reversal, Carter explains:

“Our mission is to defend this country, and we don’t want barriers unrelated to a person’s qualification to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who can best accomplish the mission.  We have to have access to 100% of America’s population for our all-volunteer force to be able to recruit from among them the most highly qualified – and to retain them.”

Taking our lead from Carter, Obama, Clinton, and Truman, a question remains if military service is a civil right, civil liberty, or both.  The distinction between these terms can be found here.  Under current US federal law and military policy, American citizens over the age of 18 of sound body and mind can volunteer to serve in the US Armed Forces.  As it relates to transgender persons, the civil right to serve in the military without discrimination and the civil liberty to openly serve have been supported by legal precedents.  If President Trump’s blanket ban is codified in policy, any resulting legal action will clarify how civil rights and liberties are applied in the case of transgender Americans wishing to serve.

Trump’s Argument

President Trump’s transgender military ban was conveyed to the public via tweet, and tweets are not legally binding nor are they official US policy (though they have been ruled legal stream of consciousness).  The day after Trump tweeted on the issue, the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford stated the Department of Defense was not changing policy on the President’s tweets alone- an official policy directive must be issued.

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, update the media on the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria during a joint press conference at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., May 19, 2017. Source: Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Creative Commons

The President’s tweets may indeed be a precursor to an executive order (such as the case with President Truman and military desegregation), a bill-turned-law (Presidents Clinton and Obama with the creation and repeal of DADT), a policy change (Secretary Carter and the service of openly transgender soldiers), some other legally binding option, or it may remain what it is today: a tweet.  The likelihood of the president issuing a policy directive is arguably uncertain.  However, based on the information the American public has on President Trump’s proposed transgender military ban, we can make an educated analysis of his arguments for a ban.  A thorough and exhaustive examination of his full public statement (341 characters, not including spaces) reveals two justifications the president offers for his transgender military ban: “tremendous medical costs” and “disruption that transgender in the military would entail”.

In 2016, the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan think tank offering research and analysis in operational strategy related to the US Armed Forces, published a report titled Assessing the Implications of Allowing Transgender Personnel to Serve Openly; the full text can be read here.  This report, commissioned in response to growing questions about the reality of allowing transgender individuals to openly serve in the military, assessed: 1) the health care needs of transgender individuals, 2) the population size of transgender individuals in the US military, 3) the likelihood & potential costs of gender-related healthcare services to the US military, and 4) the ‘potential readiness’ of the US military to allow transgender individuals to openly serve.  This report helped inform Secretary Carter’s decision to allow transgender individuals to openly serve.  This widely-respected and cited report directly addresses both of President Trump’s justifications for banning military service of transgender individuals: medical costs and “disruptions” to unit cohesion.

The medical cost President Trump is likely alluding to is the extension of healthcare coverage to transgender individuals in the US Armed Forces to cover gender-transition related treatment.  As previously stated, this includes procedures such as hormone treatment, surgeries such as hair removal or breast implantation, and gender reassignment surgery.  Given the ongoing and bitterly contentious debate in the US Congress on Obamacare repeal / reform, President’s Trump’s focus on costs accrued from health does make sense, given the current political climate.  Politicking aside, the RAND Corporation did indeed find an increase in costs to the military in extending healthcare to include gender-transition related treatments.  Using cost estimates based off public employers, private employers, and treatments likely to occur in transgender persons in the military, allowing the health extension would cost the military between $2.4million and $8.4million per year (by comparison, the US military spends $84million / year in treatment for erectile dysfunction for US servicemen- 10x the amount of gender-transition related treatment). The US military currently spends $6.2billion per year in healthcare-related costs.  Therefore, allowing transgender soldiers to have access to gender-transition related treatment would see a 0.13% or 0.0013 yearly increase in the US Armed Forces healthcare budget.  These specific estimates can be found between pages 33-37 of the RAND Report.  To put this in further perspective, one of President Trump’s foundational arguments against the military service of transgender individuals is an unwillingness to spend a potential $2.4m-$8.4m / year, for individuals committed to protecting the United States from enemies foreign and domestic, in healthcare procedures that are entirely optional and may or may not be utilized.  For the president, these “medical costs” are simply too high.

Protesters hold a sign in front of the White House stating "Trans people are not a distraction"
2017.07.26 Protest Trans Military Ban, White House, Washington DC USA. Source: Ted Eytan, Creative Commons

President Trump’s second and final argument against the military service of transgender individuals is the “disruption” they present to their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.  This very argument has been used before, most notably in the follow-up to President Obama’s repeal of DADT.  Critics of the repeal feared if other members in the unit found out an individual was lesbian, gay, or bisexual, this would inhibit unit bonding, and therefore negatively impact unit cohesion and situational readiness.  This argument has long been dismantled, and data indicate this trend holds for transgender individuals serving in the military as well.  In fact, individuals with negative attitudes towards transgender individuals are more likely to change those attitudes towards a positive outlook, given more interactions with a transgender person.  This specific instance of Mere Exposure Effect (or as social psychologists would say, “Familiarity Principle”) has been found in militaries across the world, including in the US.  The RAND Report summarizes these studies (pages 39-47), stating the presence of one or more transgender individual in a military unit has no significant impact on cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness.  “[D]isruption that transgender in the military would entail”, cited by President Trump as a reason for the transgender military ban, is simply not supported by the evidence.

Reaction to President Trump’s tweet was mostly surprise. While conservative circles welcomed the move, news outlets, advocacy groups, members of the US Armed Forces and private citizens have all expressed their ire, frustration, and disbelief at the transgender military ban.  What is more disturbing than this sudden announcement are the potential effects of President Trump’s statement on the lives of transgendered Americans.  It serves as an illustration of discrimination and oppression of transgender people in general.  This attack and other attacks like it, while disguised in seemingly innocuous rationale such as “medical costs” and unit “disruption”, do real and tangible damage to transgender persons. Reaching equality for transgender persons has just become more difficult.

Moving Towards Environmental Justice: The Flint Water Crisis & Structural Racialization

the Flint Michigan Water Plant
Flint Water Crisis is ongoing. Source: George Thomas, Creative Commons

“Nothing that has been uncovered to date suggests that anyone intended to poison the people of Flint” (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017).  The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint report was authored in response to the growing cries from community members, government officials, victims, and bystanders concerned with the abject lack of proper response to Flint water crisis which began roughly at the middle of 2014.  The Flint Water Crisis, nationally and internationally infamous for the beleaguered and dangerous handling by all levels of government, has been documented, historicized, lectured upon, and dissected from news publishers, academics institutions, watchdog groups, government organizations, and everyone in between.  The bottom line is government officials cut costs in water sanitation and pipe replacements, the consequences of which sparked a full-blown state of emergency, and finally culminated in the deaths of Flint citizens from Legionnaire’s disease and other complications from the consumption of unclean water; those implicated range from District Water Supervisor Busch to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.  The failings in Flint, as argued by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, extend far beyond the ineptitude of handfuls of government officials and their lack of planning or preparedness.  The requisite conditions necessary for a crisis of this magnitude festered many years ago, perhaps as far back as the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson.  Flint’s problems are institutional and systemic, and unfortunately, it took a catastrophe to bring these issues to the surface.

Structural racialization is understood as the tendency for social groups to “organize around structures that produce discriminatory results… without themselves possessing any personal animus” (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017).  In other words, an individual can actively contribute to community systems that result in suppression without actually harboring ill will to the victims of suppression themselves.  Ignorance/implicit bias, according to john a. powell (2010), is the primary driver behind structural racialization and its horrifying consequences.  Implicit bias–directly linked to structural racialization–sustains the longevity of the structures which cause discrimination, and these structures are kept alive only if the contributors to the structures are unaware of the malevolent consequences of the structures themselves (powell, 2010).  In the case of Flint, structural racialization began many years before the water crisis, and these implicit, racial structures ensured destruction from the crisis unfairly affected largely black, poor, politically unconnected individuals in the Flint area (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017). Using the term ‘structural racialization’ to describe a public health catastrophe, such as the Flint Water Crisis, offers no binding legal or moral prescription.  There is no way to sue a ‘structure’ for unfair or discriminatory harm.  The structure, in these cases, is reciprocally determined by every individual who unknowingly benefits from the structure and does not actively fight against the structure’s survival (powell, 2010).  The case of Flint is rife with example.  Contribution to underlying power structures such as these begins with implicit bias- it is the first stronghold keeping the structure in place.  Implicit bias, by definition, is unseen and unfelt. In this case, the denizens of Flint and the surrounding areas had no awareness of their complicity in structural racialization.  Without this awareness, there can be no hope to fight it.

Beyond the psychology of the issue is the legalistic support of structural racialization. In Flint, this involves segregated housing. The 1900-1930s saw a time of deeply-seated racist and discriminatory housing market practices that forcibly shepherded blacks and poorer whites into select neighborhoods in Flint.  These were effectively ‘ghettos’ and ensured black renters and homeowners were segregated from whites (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017).  Fast forward to present day: the neighborhoods hit hardest by the Water Crisis are neighborhoods that historically have belonged to poor and black renters and homeowners.  Racist business practices in the Jim Crow era exacerbated the loss and destruction felt by black and poor Flint citizens in the present day.

A woman holds water bottles filled with contaminated water in Flint
Flint Water Crisis. Source: Renee B, Creative Commons.

This is not to say the black community in Flint is the only one to feel the deleterious effects of the water crisis.  This public health emergency does not discriminate along ethnic lines. The discriminatory practices that trapped black Flint citizens holds that honor alone.  In 2017, a full three years after the crisis began, clean water is still an issue in Flint.  What do we tell the citizens of Flint?  How can they take civic action to expedite the process of returning to ‘normal’ life post-crisis?  Diana Francis, noted peacemaker and democracy advocate, espouses the concept of ‘speaking truth to power’.  This notion contends people–everyday concerned citizens–are the impetus of action in situational injustice.  Indeed, the recent criminal charges brought against Flint city administrators and politicians show a ‘top-down’ approach to this crisis is both unrealistic and ineffective.  For Francis, the true heroes in this story are citizens affected by and emphatic to the crisis.  Examining the normative response to Flint reveals a public willing to undertake protest and direct action, and a public expecting a direct confrontation with the individuals and systemic structures responsible for this crisis.  Here are some examples: a music festival raising awareness and money for the victims of Flint, national groups donating time and energy to provide resources to disenfranchised Fint citizens, whistleblowers risking their livlihoods to make the crisis public, and academics donating their skills to investigating the crisis itself.  These civil society actors may hold the key to eliminating the effects of the Flint water crisis and eradicating the conditions that precipitated the crisis in the first place.  Of course, this empowered response is not an assumed reaction.

In the face of a fully-fledged public health emergency, many citizens in Flint did not feel any semblance of trust in their elected officials to mitigate the crisis without state- or national-level intervention.  Without this trust, the citizens may have felt unable or ineffective to act against the discriminatory power structures in Flint.  This problem, unlike replacing pipes, cannot be ameliorated by federal funding or outside medical intervention.  Addressing this collective distrust will involve some form of cultural transformation.  These deeper fixes must involve the access to elected officials the general public has and the public’s ability to provide continuous feedback to these officials.  At several times in the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (2017), citizens of Flint (of all ethnicities) went on the record saying their concerns regarding water safety went unaddressed due to many factors, such as:

1) no knowledge of how to reach elected officials,

2) feeling their complaints were ‘unheard’ or ‘unseen’ to those who could help the situation,

3) fear of retaliation if undocumented immigrants or individuals with criminal records came forward with concerns, and

4) willful neglect on the part of government officials who simply did not feel accountable for the plights of minorities (involving both ethnicity and socioeconomic status) in the Flint area.

Two protesters hold signs decrying the lack of clean water in Flint
January 19, 2016 Lansing Protest against Gov Snyder regarding Flint Water Crisis. Source: nic antaya, Creative Commons

Moving forward, how can both human rights advocates and ordinary citizens protect rights equally in all corners of the globe and also address the grievances of individuals in Flint?  A shift towards environmental justice may be the answer.  This term means two things. First, all persons, regardless of identifying characteristics (ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, income level, etc.) have the right to enjoy the environment equally. Second, the responsibility of civic participation in the protection and maintenance of the environment belongs to all persons (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017).  Environmental justice takes its cue from Third Generation Human Rights (aka right to the environment) and adds the necessary ingredient of civic participation.  As I have stated previously on this blog, human rights are protected by “people, not documents”.  Given the second caveat of environmental justice, what happens if ordinary people have no avenue to address a public health hazard?  A crisis like Flint erupts.  What conditions predicate an inability to make these addresses?  This post contends a key condition is structural racialization.  Addressing the massive failures apparent in the Flint Water Crisis moves far beyond faulty equipment and the Flint city administration’s glacial response time.  Addressing this egregious human rights violation requires analysis going back at least a century in order to fully understand the complex interaction between history and the present.  Furthermore, the only long-term, stable solution to this issue is to equip the citizens of Flint with inexperienced political power and know-how.  This may include any of the following: a free, fair, and frequent election process; a truly representative (i.e. ethnicity, socio-economic status) local administration; a political mechanism by which citizens can openly voice public health concerns; and funding available in case large-scale crises such as these emerge.  Environmental justice in Flint, Michigan will only be achieved when the insidious structures barring unfettered access to a clean environment and free critique of those hindering this access are dismantled in their entirety.

 

Sources:

Powell, j. a. (2010).  Structural racialization and the geography of opportunity.  Online lecture. http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/2010_0611_tfn_sm_growth_training.pdf

Michigan Civil Rights Commission (2017).  The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flinthttps://www.michigan.gov/documents/mdcr/VFlintCrisisRep-F-Edited3-13-17_554317_7.pdf