ADA: Civil Rights Legislation for All

* This is a repost from summer 2017

by ABBY ROSS

July 26 1990 ADA Signing Ceremony
July 26 1990, Signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Source: United Spinal Association

Today marks the 27th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). This was a truly groundbreaking piece of civil rights legislation that finally took permanent steps towards ensuring equality for all Americans. The ADA requires private and public entities to not discriminate against people with disabilities, and was crafted with the goal of integration in all aspects of society – employment, social settings, government, transportation, and beyond.

James Weisman, President & CEO of United Spinal Association – a nonprofit dedicated to enhancing the lives of people with spinal cord injury/disorder – has been a disability rights attorney for nearly forty years and had significant involvement in drafting portions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He sued New York City as a young lawyer over inaccessible buses and subway stations. The implementation of mandatory bus lifts and key subway stations with elevators for wheelchair access were direct results of his lawsuit. This became the basis of the transportation sections of the ADA, and created a precedent across the country giving individuals with physical disabilities access to transportation and thus increasing independence.

Unbeknownst to Weisman, it was just the beginning of his advocacy work specifically related to transportation accessibility for wheelchair users. In the 1990s, United Spinal Association again brought litigation against the City of New York this time related to curb ramps – the corner of sidewalks that are altered to allow wheelchair users and parents with strollers to access the sidewalk from the street. The City was ordered to install ramps on all sidewalks and some twenty years later is still working to fully complete the project. He works on wheelchair accessibility in the taxi and transportation realms with companies like Uber and Lyft. With technology transforming transportation services, he remains committed to ensuring that accessibility is a priority from design to implementation across the transportation industry. Transportation is only a slice of the work that he has been involved in throughout the last forty years as disability rights truly extend to every aspect of an individual’s life. I wanted to hear his thoughts on this important anniversary, forty years of activism as well as reflections on today’s disability rights movement.

Senator Tom Harkin, ADA Sponsor & James Weisman at the NYC ADA25 Disability Pride Parade. Source: United Spinal Association

AR: What is the connection between disability rights and human rights?

JW: Disability rights has always been the bastard child of the rights movement. There is no real “ism” attached. Ableism is the closest thing but that is not definitive. Disability is in every group. There is no country, population or demographic that doesn’t include people with disabilities yet they still can face the hallmark issues of human rights discrimination. Poverty, isolation, inadequate healthcare, underemployment and exclusion are all barriers to independence and equality. People with disabilities face these issues day in and day out.

AR: Where do you see disability rights discussions and action moving in the future?

JW: For a few years, we were making significant progress across the board but with the new administration, we are back to basic rights. Now, the choice to live in the disability community is gravely threatened. Funding for support services that would allow people with disabilities to live independently, work, go to school, shop, go to the movies – live a “normal” life – is being slashed and the impact is tremendous. The proposed changes to healthcare would also have a dramatic effect on quality of life, self-sufficiency and frankly, life expectancy for severely disabled individuals. Simply staying alive is becoming a goal of advocacy again.

Apart from these issues of the day, which will likely always be present in some form, mental health stigma is the next biggest issue and will take the most work to overcome. The complexity of diagnoses and treatments paired with the lack of education and familiarity has created enormous barriers and misunderstanding.

And of course, transportation is always an issue. Innovation must include accessibility. Every new modality should be accessible from inception. – in 2017 it is ridiculous to even consider developing technology that wouldn’t include everyone and consider an aging population in design.

AR: Where have you seen the most progress in disability rights in the last 27 years?

JW: Without a doubt, it is the built environment. Physical accessibility is the easiest to measure, quantify, regulate and learn how to fix. There have been amazing advancements in what is considered normal in terms of building design and features. Automatic entries, lever style door handles, accessible restroom stalls – all things many people don’t even notice but are essential for wheelchair users and others with mobility impairments.

James Weisman and Ian Ruder at United Spinal’s Roll on Capitol Hill Advocacy Event, 2012. Source: United Spinal Association

AR: In your opinion, what is missing from the movement?

JW: Collective identity with the rest of the country. People with disabilities are a tremendous minority group but generally not understood or engaged in the same respect that the able-bodied public is in terms of employment, education, media, advertisers, athletics, etc. Society seems to perpetually need to be re-educated about disability. The image of people with disabilities used to range from heroic to pathetic – that has changed and I believe now ranges from needy to competent but continues to be somewhat one dimensional. For instance, the wheelchair user who is the leading man’s best friend but not the leading man. One in five Americans have a disability. – We all have a friend, uncle, neighbor or colleague with a disability that we consider “our disabled guy” – we know they operate in the world, go to work, school, church, buy groceries and socialize but somehow our personal experiences are not extrapolated out to our experiences with the greater disability community.

To some degree we are missing the next generation of disability rights leaders. Many of my colleagues have been involved in these battles for thirty years or longer when the fights were about the basics – access to buildings, transportation, education. Fortunately, we have progressed since then to more sophisticated issues but there are still barriers on many fronts. The next generation of leaders will need to understand the history of the movement, the landscape of the challenges and the best possible outcomes for the disability community. We have so many bright individuals, disabled and able-bodied, that are doing wonderful work around the country – I am sure that the disability rights movement will be in good hands.

AR: What lessons have you learned in your decades of disability activism?

JW: Good ideas eventually come to fruition. It just takes time. You must keep them on the table, keep talking, keep pushing. Nothing changes if you don’t push. That often means you lose and it is one step forward three steps back but I’ve seen dramatic change in a relatively short time so I know it can happen.

Bias goes away if you expose it. Again, not necessary quickly and not completely, but every little bit helps.

I’ve found that it is extremely rewarding to be a part of this community and social fabric. I have developed extremely meaningful relationships through my work in disability rights. It is a very effect way to mature as a person – to understand the grand scale of the movement and issues as well as the microcosm of individual struggles and concerns.

AR: Finally, why should disability rights matter to every American?

JW: Dependence is expensive. Way more expensive than independence. Dependence is person specific and labor intensive whereas independence often requires only one-time investments. Motorized wheelchairs, building alterations and other assistive technologies certainly aren’t cheap but are essential tools for personal liberty.  The goal of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the goal of all the work that we do around rights is simple – to give opportunity. I always say that the greatest opera ever written or the cure for cancer or other remarkable achievements may be locked in the head of an individual with disabilities who without the services, tools and right to independence will never have the opportunities they deserve to share, create and succeed. Do we want to pay to take care of everyone when the alternative – increasing access to education, employment and opportunities is by far the better alternative?

Disability rights are human rights. People with disabilities are individuals of all ages and backgrounds who are striving to be independent and active participants in society. They are moms, colleagues, wounded warriors, uncles, kids with big dreams, best friends and neighbors. They have families, jobs, hobbies, likes and dislikes and problems and joys. While the disability is an integral part of who they are, it alone does not define them.

 

Abby Ross is the Chief Operating Officer of United Spinal Association headquartered in NYC.

James Weisman was the General Counsel of United Spinal Association for 35 years prior to becoming President & CEO in 2015.

CRPD: Implementation for the people, by the people

** As the IHR and other sponsors prepare for the “Symposium on Disability Rights,” the next few weeks will highlight some posts from the past as well as feature new posts written to provide some background into the various panel focuses.  

* This is a repost from summer 2017.

a picture of the CRPD CoSP banner outside of the UN
Source: Ajanet Rountree

The UAB IHR team had the opportunity to participate as rapporteurs in the Conference of State Parties (CoSP) annual meeting at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. In accordance with Article 40 of the Convention on the Rights of Person with Disabilities (CRPD), CoSP consists of convention signatories responsible for the implementation of the Convention. This annual meeting is the “most diverse international disability meeting in the world” because it brings together UN agencies, non-governmental organizations, human rights institutions, disabled persons organizations (DPOs), and civil society.

Estimated at 1 billion, persons with disabilities are the largest minority worldwide, facing considerable marginalization in every day life. The CRPD is the first human rights treaty of the 21st century, with the expressed purpose of ensuring that “all persons with all types of disabilities…enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms”. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2006, the CRPD is the first treaty “open for signature by regional integration organizations” (app) who exercise the social development dimension by changing attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities.

The UN Enable website designates the mandate of CRPD as “the movement from viewing persons with disabilities as “objects”  of charity, medical treatment, and social protection towards viewing persons with disabilities as “subjects” with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights, and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society.” In other words, CRPD focuses on the human being rather than the disability, and its implementation teaches the world to do the same. As of November 2016, 168 states and the European Union ratified the Convention; the United States has not.

The CRPD presents a disabled perspective to an able-bodied norm. Through the CRPD, persons with disabilities– disempowered through invisibility that is rooted in an able-bodied world, which often forgets their existence—benefit as their human rights infuse with other conventions, standards and norms of treatment.

a map of the nations that have and have not ratified the CRPD
Source: UN Enable

Janet Lord argues that the language utilized in the CRPD reinforces the need to reframe disability as a contribution to society, rather than a hindrance. Pointing to the American Disability Act (ADA) as a stepping-stone to the CRPD creation, she makes a clear delineation that CRPD is not an international version of ADA. “[CRPD] provides a framework for the development of disability rights in countries that is, in large part, inspired by the principles and concepts found in the ADA—nondiscrimination, inclusion, autonomy, human dignity. Like any other human rights treaty, the CRPD seeks to ensure that the human rights to which all are entitle are actually implemented for persons with disabilities.” She hones in on two essential themes of the CRPD: non-discrimination and employment.

First, non-discrimination is all-inclusive as defined in Article 2 and outlined in Article 5. “Discrimination on the basis of disability means any distinction, exclusion or restriction on the basis of disability which has the purpose or effect of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal basis with others, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field. It includes all forms of discrimination, including the denial of reasonable accommodation.” Akiko Ito, Chief of the Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, insists the need for at least two perspectives, disabled and gendered, when mainstreaming disability as a measure to counter discrimination. Unfortunately, the layers of discrimination are not limited to two perspectives; therefore, it is necessary to include race and/or ethnicity, given the intersectionality of an individual life.

Second, barriers to employment reinforce exclusion and marginalization. While employment barriers differ depending on the disability, the overarching concept lies in accessibility. As an able-bodied person, I take accessibility for granted. Consider how a wheelchair user gets to work if there is not access to a bus, cab, or car that is accessible; or how a visually impaired person gets information from the internet, if there is no voice-over technology. Article 27 of the CRPD challenges and demands the labor market to be “open, inclusive and accessible…by taking appropriate steps” for persons with disabilities to participate and enjoy the right to work. UN Enable reports that there is difficulty in obtaining data on persons with disabilities, specific to employment; however, here some of what we know:

  • In the US, a 2004 survey reported that 35% of persons with disabilities have employment when compared to 78% of the rest of the population.
  • China has an estimated 83 million persons with disability – that is 6.3% of the country’s population
  • In Ireland, 37% of persons 15-64 have a disability and are employed
  • Thailand states that 1.3 million of the 4.8 million persons with disabilities are working age
  • 70% of Russia’s disabled population is unemployed

The rights to employment and non-discrimination fall into the categories of economic and social affairs. While CoSP ensures the practical application of the CRPD on the local level, the Department of Economics and Social Affairs (DESA) advises, develops, and oversees policy creation and the implementation of CRPD on the national level. Ito explains, “DESA works to support the development pillars of the United Nations – peace and security, and human rights.” CRPD and its implementation align with the 1945 UN Charter that seeks to identify progress in economic and social development, and promote human rights through the creation and maintenance of a peaceful and prosperous world.

The role of civil society is imperative in the implementation of the CRPD. Article 33 makes allowance that persons with disabilities and their organizations are involved and participate in the monitoring process; this outlet is CoSP. Civil society participation is uncharted territory as no other human rights treaty acknowledges the advocacy, accountability, and the representation of NGOs. By recognizing the mandates and positions of NGOs within communities and around the globe, CoSP is striving to ensure the full inclusion of persons with disabilities into an accessible and accepting society. To be clear, the implementation process is complex, difficult, and far from over. Fortunately, having persons with disabilities led and dominate discussions, CoSP represents a microcosm of dedicated innovation and a relentless pursuit of excellence as they collaborate to create, maintain, and reframe equal representation of human rights through participation and partnership.

Over the course of this week, the team will share personal experiences and takeaways from this incredible week that included the official launch of the CRPD app and sharing of Making Disability Rights Real in Southeast Asia by Dr. Derrick Cogburn and Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter.

 

 

Why Big Data is a Human Rights Concern

What Is Big Data?

Big Data refers to the collection and use of massive volumes of data to study, understand, and predict human behavior. Big data or predictive analytics is a new field that is growing fast. In order to predict human behavior with a high degree of accuracy, data researchers require millions of data points. Collecting this data is far easier than using it to make useful predictions. A large portion of these researcher’s work lies in organizing and manipulating the data into a format that allows for detailed analysis to be conducted. Researchers make use of highly advanced algorithms to process data and make useful predictions about future human behavior. Many of the world’s largest tech and social media companies, including Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat are at the forefront of this industry. In this article, I will focus on the cases of China and Facebook. To clarify Big Data and Artificial Intelligence are not the same thing. Rather Big Data is a general term referring to the collection of massive amounts of information and algorithms to make predictions on future outcomes. Artificial Intelligence falls under Big Data but it is a distinct subcategory that refers to the programming of computers to do tasks that normally require human intelligence. This can range from Tesla’s self-driving car mode, Siri’s speech recognition, or Amazon’s predictions for shopping habits.

The primary reason is that these companies are perfectly positioned to make use of Big Data. Each of these companies has access to the information of millions of their users and customers, which allows them to fulfill the massive amount of data needed for Big Data research. Many governments are also becoming increasingly involved with the use of predictive analytics. Examples of the use of Big Data are counter-terrorism, personalized ads, increasing work productivity, and predicting virus outbreaks.

Why Is Big Data Concerning?

While Big Data presents many possibilities for good, it raises many moral and ethical concerns. The primary concern is an individual’s right to privacy online. In the United States and many countries around the world, personal rights to privacy in the physical world are well established. Law enforcement, or anyone for that matter, cannot search our belongings, homes, cars, or persons without consent unless there are legal grounds for probable cause and a warrant to search. However, most of these laws and regulations fail to extend to privacy rights for online activity. The quick rise of the Internet and the rapid pace of technological innovation has left these laws outdated and inadequate for the modern age where the Internet is a daily requirement for many peoples’ lifestyles. The Internet is necessary for most jobs, access to the news, social connectivity with friends and family, entertainment, and freedom of expression. One could make the argument that access to the Internet is an ‘inherent and inalienable’ human right under the ‘preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness’ guaranteed to all men in the Declaration of Independence. With it being the case that the Internet is an essential part of our lives that are increasingly becoming bigger and bigger, shouldn’t our rights to privacy extend to our time on the Internet? This is the human rights case being made for the creation of online privacy laws.

How Does Big Data Affect Me?

Currently, governments and companies are utilizing our information as they see fit with very little or in some cases no consent or oversight. Big Data has become a valuable commodity that is being bought and sold between these entities. Almost every aspect of our lives that is possible to monitor is being tracked with the widespread use of surveillance cameras, logging of browser search history, online purchasing habits, flight reservations, financial records, social media posts, and physical appearance and security data. Private companies, such as Facebook and Google, are using this data to create millions of detailed user profiles. These companies then monetize their customer information by selling access to other companies, governments, and organizations attempting to conduct research, target ads, or make other use of this massive amount of information. It is hard to even imagine how large Big Data is. The majority of billions of peoples’ online activities are being stored and collected. The data is so huge that no computer’s hard drive can store it all and it must be accessed through the cloud. Giant server farms located all around the world maintain and hold onto this personal data.

With this much personal information on this many people, there is a great risk for abuse. There are many well-documented scandals of misuse of personal data and illegal online surveillance by many governments. Companies have come under pressure for hacks and bugs that have exposed personal information on users, many of which weren’t even aware that their information was being collected. These instances are clear violations of basic human rights to privacy and further highlight the need for online privacy legislation.

China’s War on Online Freedom & Privacy

China is the largest country in the world by population, the world’s third largest economy behind only the United States and the European Union, and very advanced in terms of education and technological innovation. However, it also is responsible for the largest case of mass censorship, denial of freedom of Internet access, and mass online tracking and surveillance the world has ever seen. In 1995, China allowed the general public to have access to the Internet. However, the regime quickly realized the potential for political opposition movements to utilize the Internet as a means of protest and call for change. To combat this, the leaders enacted laws that punished those who used the Internet and posted anything that could be deemed to “hurt national security or the interests of the state.”

To enforce these laws the government invested heavily into a means of removing information that violated these terms and regulating the flow of data into and out of the country. This tool has become known as the “Great Firewall of China.” When Xi Jinping became president in 2012, he restricted access to the Internet further and increased the penalties for violating the country’s strict Internet laws. Xi mounted a heavy offensive against any resistance by arresting many individuals and punishing dozens of companies for violating his policies. China, under his rule, employs over two million people just to regulate and censor information that is contrary to the “interests” of the country. This has culminated into what has been labeled the Great Cannon, a massive team of Chinese government hackers that targets any site in violation of Chinese internet regulations.

China is a clear example of the dangers of the government having too much control over the internet. With no transparency or oversight, governmental abuse of power will often result. Xi was able to single-handedly suppress over a billion people’s rights, beliefs, and access to news and important information. These are risks when rights to the Internet and online privacy are not protected through legislation. Internet access and privacy laws will safeguard against the government violating the rights of citizens.

Does Facebook Care About My Privacy?

On the other end of the spectrum, the absence of regulation can also be detrimental. A lack of stringent internet privacy laws to control how big tech companies in the US can use the information of their user base has led to many citizens privacy rights being violated. One of the most alarming incidents came this past year with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cambridge Analytica collected the personal data of 87 million users due to Facebook’s inadequate safeguards against data harvesting and lack of oversight of Facebook developers.

Facebook has policies in place that have allowed people and companies claiming to conduct research the ability to gain access to users accounts if given permission. However, by one user downloading the developers’ app and agreeing to share their information, the information of every single one of that user’s Facebook friends could also be obtained. This flaw is what allowed 87 million people’s personal information to be improperly collected without their knowledge.

The app was created by a researcher at Cambridge University and programmed to harvest the data of the user and every one of that user’s friends. This brings up ethical concerns as well as a security issue. The vast majority, around 99.7%, of the 87 million accounts harvested was of user’s that were unaware that companies and researchers had possessed their information or how their information was being used. One wonders how Facebook could legally and ethically allow for millions of their user data to be harvested without consent. Even more concerning is the lack of protocols for ensuring that these companies’ motives are legitimate and that the data harvested is protected. Since there isn’t much oversight, this data was able to be licensed illegally to Cambridge Analytica and other companies for over a year before Facebook became aware of the incident. This isn’t an isolated case with The Washington Post reporting that Facebook announced “malicious actors” abused the search function to gather public profile information of “most of its 2 billion users worldwide.” Facebook’s lack of stringent safety measures to prevent the harvesting and abuse of user’s personal data is alarming. They have misused and failed to protect user data many times and have suffered little to zero punishment due to the lack of laws to hold them accountable.

What Needs to Happen to Protect Online Privacy

China and Facebook have shown us the dangers of not having well-crafted internet privacy laws and policies in place. It is clear that a balance needs to be struck on the level of internet regulation. With too much regulation the government has a large amount of power that could be abused as seen with China. However, a lack of regulation will allow private companies and citizens the opportunity to freely abuse the rights of others. The goal is to push for internet privacy laws that will adequately protect user rights while preventing either of these cases from occurring. When this is achieved then the human right to freedom of expression and privacy online will be secured for all people.

 

*additional resource 

Book Review: White Fragility by Robin Diangelo

by Mary Johnson-Butterworth

I recently read White Fragility by Robin Diangelo. Diangelo is an academic, lecturer, and author and has been a consultant and trainer on issues of racial and social justice for more than twenty years.  She formerly served as a tenured professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University.” I picked up the book because I am trying to understand and eradicate any micro-aggressions directed toward people of color on my part and to woman up to my own racism.  Identifying as both white and fragile puts the onus for my education and change on friends and acquaintances of color, and I wanted to take responsibility for my own rehabilitation.

DiAngelo conceived of white fragility from years of facilitating diversity training where “good” white people became incensed when faced with any suggestion of racist identity in their own lives. How does it connect to racism? Racism, the oppression of a dominant group by a targeted group based on skin color, is a complex, multi-layered structure—not an event. “Racism hurts (even kills) people of color 24-7.  Interrupting it is more important than my feelings, ego, or self-image,” writes Diangelo.  She also maintains that, when it comes to racism in the U.S., no choir exists to whom we can preach.  Regardless of our upbringing as white people, we all are indoctrinated by a potent combination of entitlement, individualism, comfort, safety, normalcy, and supremacy that other races cannot access.  Diangelo suggests that a person of color may refuse to wait on me in a store, but I still have the power, as a white person, to manipulate which neighborhood she can choose and, therefore, the caliber of schools her child attends, hence debunking the existence in our society of reverse racism.

*Lack of understanding of what racism is

*Seeing ourselves as individuals, exempt from the forces of racial socialization

*Failure to understand that we bring our group’s history with us, that history matters

*Assuming everyone is having or can have our experience

*Lack of racial humility, and unwillingness to listen

*Dismissing what we don’t understand

*Lack of authentic interest in the perspectives of people of color

*Wanting to jump over the hard, personal work and get to “solutions”

*Confusing disagreement with not understanding

*Need to maintain white solidarity, to save face, to look good

*Guilt that paralyzes or allows inaction

*Defensiveness about any suggestion that we are connected to racism

*A focus on intentions over the impact

Aversive racism allows us white people to remain racist and still feel good about ourselves by rationalizing segregation in schools as the need for “good schools,” and the overabundance of whites in the workplace “because they [people of color] don’t apply.” White folks get away with the use of coded language such as urban, underprivileged, diverse, sketchy, and good/bad neighborhoods to belie their racist underpinnings.  The author relays a story of a white friend who called to say they had a mutual friend who bought a ridiculously cheap house in a New Orleans neighborhood, but her friend felt the need to buy a gun. When Diangelo responded, “I assume it’s a black neighborhood,” her friend said, “Yes, you get what you pay for.  I’d rather pay $500,000 and live somewhere where I wasn’t afraid.” The woman never used the word “black,” but the implication was crystal clear.  Toni Morrison alludes to “race talk,” designed to denigrate people of color, elevate white people, and keep in place the “us and “them” dichotomy.

While facilitating a workshop, the author questioned an African American man about what he would think if white people risked upsetting their white racial equilibrium to graciously receive feedback, reflect, and work to change their behavior. His immediate answer, “It would be revolutionary.”  “However, we aren’t likely to get there if we are operating from the dominant worldview that only intentionally mean people can participate in racism.” Color blindness (“I don’t see color.”) and color celebration (“I have a good friend who’s black.”) often exempt white people from examining the racism impacting them daily.  Most of us are taught to be kind, but “unless that kindness is combined with clarity and the courage to name and challenge racism, this approach protects white fragility and needs to be challenged.”  “An honest accounting of our racist patterns is no small task given the power of white fragility and white solidarity, but it is necessary.”

According to Diangelo, studies show that white children develop a sense of white superiority as early as preschool. Although many millennials profess to living in a postracial society, when 626 white college students at 28 colleges across the U.S. were asked to keep journals of racial images, racial issues, or what they understood to be racist behavior for 6 to 8 weeks, over 7500 blatantly racist comments and actions committed by family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers were recorded.

White fragility can translate as bullying when a racial point is made by a person of color, and a white woman cries needing comfort or all of the energy goes to soothe or assuage the guilt of the white people in the room.  The salient point is lost to white fragility, and nothing is learned.

Diangelo states that, in the U.S., anti-blackness is particularly prevalent, and white people’s history, as well as their present, is tied to abuse and devaluation of black bodies.  Slavery, lynchings, police shootings of unarmed black men, the school to prison pipeline, even the dissing of a black man who “takes a knee,” reflect a White disdain for African Americans in this nation.   Diangelo poses that it is a very different narrative to hail Jackie Robinson the first black man allowed by white people to play in the majors, rather than the first black man to have the skill to play in the majors.

Cover-to-cover, White Fragility is full of messages that are difficult for us white people to hear. I am indicted as a racist just by virtue of the society in which we live. We, White people, have the responsibility to transform our guilt into action.  We must move past defensiveness, discomfort, the conscious unawareness of our role in overt or often covert racism, and the way we look to others.  We must guard against allying with fellow racists in solidarity, forgetting that we are unconsciously invested in racism, refusing feedback from or not listening to people of color, and staying insulated in our cocoon of white equilibrium.  If we find ourselves open to shoving our white fragility aside, we may accomplish the following:

*Minimize our defensiveness.

*Demonstrate our vulnerability.

*Demonstrate our curiosity and humility.

*Allow for growth.

*Stretch our worldview.

*Ensure action.

*Demonstrate that we practice what we profess to value.

*Build authentic relationships and trust.

*Interrupt privilege-protecting comfort.

*Interrupt internalized superiority.  

Robin Diangelo offers us white folks the insights and the tools to explore and, with hard work, to overcome our white fragility in favor of transformation and enlightenment.

 

Mary Johnson-Butterworth, age 69, has been a social justice activist most of her adult life.  She has facilitated social justice workshops for middle and high school students throughout the Birmingham area and beyond with the YWCA of Central Alabama, the National Conference for Community and Justice, the National Coalition Building Institute, and YouthServe.  Mary has also been on staff at a residential YWCA diversity camp, Anytown Alabama, for 22 years and has facilitated trainings for corporate entities, Leadership Birmingham, and Project Corporate Leadership.  She has recently discovered the power of poetry to transform her own life and the lives of impacted listeners.

Digital Citizenship: The Good, The Bad, & The Role of the Internet

Picture of hand in a web of technological devices
Communication Internet, by Pixabay, Creative Commons

In the early history of democracies, political voting was inherently simple: it was the communication of approval or disapproval of policies, platforms, and so on. Dissention was normal, but the partisan politics we are familiar with today were almost nonexistent. Issues that one politician had with another’s proposal were addressed in a direct, timely manner. In terms of the general public, everyone was essentially getting the same information via the same means – the printed press. This meant everyone was getting the same information at the same time; there may have been differences in interpretations, but everyone was reading the same headline as their neighbor. Today, we have thousands of media vying for our attention on many topics, especially politics. Whether from CNN, MSNBC, NPR, or Fox News, we are bombarded with information on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media.

So, how did we abruptly shift from getting news from the same medium to getting news from every angle? The answer is simple: The Internet. The Internet completely transformed how we receive and access all media of information, including political information; politicians can directly speak to voters who then participate in the political arena without leaving their home. Technological advancements in communication play an important role in influencing electoral behavior, easing the accessibility of political information. The Internet makes it easier to find out a candidate’s platform, what they want to work for, and their history. By using the internet in this way, people are engaging in what is now known as “digital citizenship.” A “digital citizen” is one who engages in democratic affairs in conventional ways by using an unconventional medium such as their laptop or smartphone.

The media’s role in elections and politics has grown exponentially since the 1960s. Prior to television, presidential candidates relied on the radio, think of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats, and other interpersonal means to communicate with voters: caucuses, party conventions, town halls, and so on. As technology progressed and television became widely accessible, reliance on interpersonal connections diminished and reliance upon the media grew. Power transitioned from party leaders and bosses to the candidates – as they were able to take control of their campaign, so long as their actions were worthy enough to make headlines. This transfer of power once benefitted only the candidates; however, now the power resides with the media: for they decide what suits their audiences, and who America sees.

This transfer of power greatly impacts our political processes. When politicians are their own bosses, they are able to disregard societal “norms” and use populist rhetoric to enhance their performance in the political realm. Kellener asserts President Trump is the “master of media spectacle”; using populism to make headlines and instill fear into voters more susceptible to fear- and anger-based messaging, he was able to “use the disturbing underside of American politics to mobilize his supporters”.

Picture of various social media icons
Online Internet Icon, Pixaby, Creative Commons

The Good

ISTE.org layers the ‘digital’ components onto the definition of a conventional good citizen:

A good citizen… A good digital citizen…
Advocates for equal human rights for all Advocates for equal digital rights for all
Treats others with respect Seeks to understand all perspectives

Does not steal or damage others’ property

Respects digital privacy, intellectual property, and other rights of people online
Communicates clearly, respectfully, and with empathy Communicates and acts with empathy for others’ humanity via digital channels
Speaks honestly and does not repeat unsubstantiated rumors Applies critical thinking to all online sources, including fake news or advertisements
Works to make the world a better place Leverages technology to advocate for and advance social causes
Protects self and others from harm Is mindful of physical, emotional, and mental health while using digital tools
Teams up with others on community projects Leverages digital tools to collaborate with others
Projects a positive self-image Understands the permanence of the digital world and proactively manages digital identity

All of the characteristics of a “good digital citizen” may be applied to participating in democracy via the Internet. If everyone had access to the internet, more people would be able to register to vote as well as discussing and engaging in the political arena. If we seek to understand more perspectives, we could combat the political “bubbles” that we either choose to live in or are placed into by Facebook filtering your newsfeed depending on your online habits. If we used technology to advocate for social causes such as voter disenfranchisement, we could get more people engaged with our democracy.

Being a “good” digital citizen transcends holding personal values – it includes the pursuit of equality for all. We are lucky enough to live in a country where digital citizenship is accessible for most, but we are doing no justice by those who cannot access it by not utilizing this new form of citizenship.

 

The Bad

The era of digital citizenship is a result of the rapid spread in access to the Internet. If you have access to the Internet in America, you have the opportunity to register to vote (given that you meet the proper requirements set by your state), to research political platforms and to engage with others to discuss politics. Political participation (not exclusive to voting) has increased – people are engaging more in more discussions on every form of media; however, these discussions may not always be beneficial or productive. Kurst says, due to our emotionally charged atmosphere in the US, it is very easy (and very typical) for conversations surrounding politics escalate to attacks on opposing values. It is easy to rely strictly on what you are told from your favorite news source or directly from a politician and regurgitate the rhetoric, but it is vital to our unity as a society to fact check your information, and respectfully listen to the “other side.”

In today’s political climate, virtually everything is politicized – including our social media. We live in our “red bubbles” or “blue bubbles” and disassociate from anyone who may be on the other side. Thompson argues this is normal; we seek homogeneity in our marriages, workplaces, neighborhoods, and peer groups. However, when it comes to politics and the Internet, we are allowed to pretend like those without similar interests do not exist. When we ostracize a group of people and those people feel as though they are not being represented, we see members of the Republican party proclaiming they are the “silent majority,” which was a galvanizing force behind their voter turnout in 2016. By devaluing another side’s beliefs, we are dehumanizing those who hold them. This causes anger, frustration, and retaliation – all of which that may take place in the digital or physical realms. We cannot abandon our fellow Americans simply because we disagree; we have to realize the differences we have are much less than the commonalities we share.

The polarization of the two parties in America today discredits many media outlets. 47% of conservatives said they get their news exclusively from Fox News; while liberals get theirs from a more diverse set of news. Conservatives and liberals alike see anything that does not reflect their values as “biased”, in fact, members of society gravitate to information that reaffirms their beliefs and intentionally avoid information that contradicts said beliefs, according to Drs. Rouhana and Bar-Tal. This creates a biased interpretation of the news – information that is consistent with already-held beliefs are interpreted as fact and support for whichever side of the argument the reader/viewer ascribes to. As a result, Americans question the validity of news sources that contradict that of their personal beliefs. The crossroads of political polarization and declining trust in our media outlets is where fake news exists. Truth has become a relative term and is often manipulated by an ideology, not fact.

How can we fix the political polarization tearing at the social fabric of American society? Establishing trust “across the aisle” seems like a hopeless cause in today’s America. When asked how to “pop” the political bubbles we live in, Gerson claims, “[the] cause is not hopeless, because the power of words to shape the human spirit is undeniable. These can be words that belittle, diminish and deceive. Or they can ring down the ages about human dignity. They can also allow us, for a moment, to enter the experiences of others and widen, just a bit, the aperture of our understanding. On the success of this calling much else depends.”  The solution to diminishing this polarization is to listen – listen and realize the other person you are disagreeing with possess the same humanity you do, and this humanity should be respected.

@ symbol with American symbols
News Internet, by Max Pixel, Creative Commons

Digital Citizenship and Human Rights

Marginalized populations have always struggled to get their voices heard. Without active engagement in democracy, minorities struggle to achieve full citizenship. The Internet and digital citizenship have worked together to diminish this obstacle faced by minorities. Social movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and even the Arab Spring began and spread with the assistance of the Internet. Digital citizenship is linked to creating online communities to which people who struggle “fitting in” with their physical environment can find a home.

Using the Internet, citizens are easily mobilized on issues that concern them, whether domestic or international. They are able to pressure politicians to take actions against human rights violations and assist organizations doing field work where an injustice is present. For example, we are able to donate financially to the organizations making an effort to abolish the attacks on the LGBTQ+ community currently taking place in Chechnya, Russia. By being aware of it and all the other injustices taking place, we are able to assist in the resistance and make a difference in a way we could not have 10 years ago thanks to the Internet.

There are those who choose to not engage in politics in any shape or form, and there are those who use the Internet exclusively for political reasons. Wherever you fall within that spectrum, it is easy to agree that the polarization we have in America today is an issue that needs proper attention. It starts at the individual level: listening to what others who are different have to say, diversifying your news sources, and being open to disagreement. We must break out of our “bubbles” and not allow the influence of the Internet to shape our values for us.

Election Day 2018: A Win for Human Rights

by Pam Zuber

a voter registration table
Voter Registration. Source: Wikicommons.

“That’s how we can end this dangerous cycle — by making sure that every single person we know makes their voice heard, in this election and in every election. Because when we all vote, we all do better.” –Michelle Obama, Shondaland, 2018

On November 6, 2018, we did do better in many areas. That’s because it was the day of the midterm election, a day that featured elections in several U.S. states. Voters in many of these states voted for proposals and candidates that promoted human rights and represented advancement. A few of the highlights:

Florida

Voters in the Sunshine State approved Proposal 4, a measure that will restore voting privileges to people who have completed serving their sentences for felonies that don’t include murders or felonious sexual assault. This measure is expected to restore the voting rights of more than one million Floridians. A significant number of these Florida residents are minorities. According to Vox, “In 2016, more than 418,000 black people out of a black voting-age population of more than 2.3 million, or 17.9 percent of potential black voters in Florida, had finished sentences but couldn’t vote due to a felony record.” Florida’s Proposal 4 thus will enfranchise people and create a voting pool that more accurately reflects the population of the state. Such voters might elect candidates and approve measures that resemble their lives and their desires, which could make the state more of representational democracy.

Colorado 

Did you know that slavery is a punishment that is still legal in federal prisons? Slavery as a punishment is also legal in the constitutions of many U.S. states. But, this won’t be the case in Colorado. On November 6, 2018, voters in that state approved Amendment A, a proposal that would include language that bans slavery in its state constitution, two years after a similar proposal failed in the state. While banning all slavery for all reasons on both the state and the federal levels would obviously be a more humane and empowering decision, banning language that forbids slavery is a good first step. A small step, to be sure, but still a step in the right direction.

New York

Midterm elections in other states featured candidates who are sympathetic to human rights. New York voters elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the U.S. House of Representatives. Ocasio-Cortez is a woman of Puerto Rican descent and a self-described socialist whose platform endorsed criminal justice and immigration reform, expanded Medicare health coverage, gun control, LGBTIA+ and women’s rights, the promotion of peace, and support for senior citizens and Puerto Rico. Ocasio-Cortez stunned her home state and the nation when she defeated longtime Congressional representative Joe Crowley in the New York Democratic primary in June 2018. The representative’s political views thus place her in the company of fellow progressives such as independent senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. This means it also places her in opposition to U.S. president Donald Trump. The 2018 midterm election gave Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow Democrats a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. The U.S. Senate, meanwhile, retained a Republican majority, and the presidential administration is also Republican. Will these different political perspectives lead to bipartisanship? Conflict? How will they affect the politics and governance of the country?

Arizona

Arizona’s race for U.S. Senate may have been as interesting as its ultimate results. That’s because the race featured two women running for a Senate seat. Even though the results of the 2018 election means that a record number of women will serve as U.S. senators, this still means that twenty-four women will be U.S. senators. That makes the U.S. Senate 24% women. The population of the entire United States is 50.8% female, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Women, then, are still underrepresented in the U.S. Senate compared to their overall totals in the general population. Since Arizona’s race featured two female candidates, it represented a more inclusive sort of political race, one that a female was bound to win, no matter what. And the race? It pitted Republican Martha McSally and Democrat Krysten Sinema. McSally also served as the first woman to fly in combat for the U.S. Air Force. Sinema won, receiving approximately 50% of the vote to McNally’s approximately 47.6%.

Georgia

Another new Congressperson, Lucia “Lucy” McBath of Georgia, has supported LGBTIA+ and women’s rights, immigrants, and the Affordable Care Act. Another focus of her work, gun safety, is sadly personal. That’s because, in 2012, a man shot and killed McBath’s unarmed seventeen-year-old son, Jordan Davis, arguing that the teen was playing music too loudly. The first trial for the crime ended in a mistrial in February 2014 after juror disagreements. After a second trial later that year, Davis’s murderer, Michael Dunn, was convicted and received a sentence of life imprisonment with no chance of parole. Her son’s death and further tragedies such as a 2018 mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school led McBath to become what she calls a reluctant activist and prompted her to run for office. McBath supports a host of gun safety measures, such as raising the age requirement to purchase firearms and banning weapon access for people convicted of domestic abuse.

Michigan

Women swept the top executive seats in the state of Michigan. Voters elected Gretchen Whitmer as governor, Dana Nessel as the attorney general, and Jocelyn Benson as the secretary of state. Openly gay Nessel also gained fame as the attorney in the case that legalized gay marriage and adoption in Michigan and helped pave the way for marriage equality in the nation. Whitmer, Nessel, and Benson joined Debbie Stabenow, who held her position as one of Michigan’s U.S. senators. They also join newly elected Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan attorney and civil rights advocate who was one of the first two Muslim women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (newly elected Ilhan Omar of Minnesota was the other). Michigan voters also approved proposals that could impact state politics in the future. Proposal 2 was a measure that will establish a board of political party members and independent voters that will create legislative maps. This measure hopes to fight gerrymandering, the practice of creating maps to produce voter patterns that are favorable to specific political parties. Another voter-approved measure, Proposal 3, aims to make voting easier and fairer by making absentee ballots more available, automatically registering voters at state government offices, and enacting other measures.

a screenshot of 116th House of Representatives
More women in Congress. Source: FolsomNatural, Creative Commons

Voters chose more diversity

Many other states elected women. In fact, so many women won their races that there will be a record number of women in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Two of these women are New Mexico’s Deb Haaland and Kansas’s Sharice Davids, who became the first female Native American members of the House of Representatives. Haaland, in fact, is a thirty-fifth generation New Mexican. 

This surge of female power isn’t just confined to the legislative and executive branches. Nineteen black women campaigned to become judges in Harris County, Texas in 2018. All nineteen will serve as judges. Their campaigns have been dubbed Black Girl Magic and are emblematic of the growing power of African American women in political affairs. Observers hope that the Harris County judges will bring their diverse experiences to represent and work with the people of their area.

Speaking of diverse life experiences, U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota is a woman, a Muslim, and a refugee from Somalia. She wears hijabs, headscarves that some Muslim women wear, which has prompted members of the U.S. Congress to reconsider the legislative body’s ban on head coverings. Her experience as an immigrant could be crucial in shaping or fighting legislation relating to immigration and asylum in the coming years.

More members of the LGBTIA+ community are also running for and holding office. U.S. congressperson Sharice Davids and Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel are lesbians, and Colorado’s Jared Polis became the first openly gay man elected governor of a U.S. state. Previously, he was the first openly gay man elected to the U.S. Congress. And, although Christine Hallquist did not become Vermont’s governor, she did make history as “the first openly transgender gubernatorial candidate in the nation’s history,” according to Politico.

This is not to say that the results of the 2018 midterm election entirely supported inclusion and human rights. Alabama and West Virginia both approved measures that restrict abortions. Mississippi voters elected a senator, Cindy Hyde-Smith, who said she’d attend a public hanging in her enthusiasm for a supporter. Since Hyde-Smith’s competitor was an African American man, the senator-elect’s comments recalled the horror and ugliness of racially motivated lynchings in Mississippi and elsewhere in the nation.

But, even despite these developments, the election elected candidates from many different backgrounds with many different experiences and perspectives. It supported measures that aim to make life more inclusive for more U.S. residents. It approved candidates and measures that represent voters, acknowledge them, and give them agency. Michelle Obama was right. People who vote are broadcasting their voices. They’re working to help make life better for themselves, their fellow citizens, and future generations.

 

About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and editor who has written about a wide variety of topics, including physical and mental health, addiction, human rights, and gender.

The Generations of Human Rights

The words "liberte egalite fraternite" written above the entrance to the Hôtel de Ville in Avignon, France.
Avignon – Place de l’Horloge – Hotel de Ville – Liberte Egalite Fraternite. Source: Elliot Brown, Creative Commons

When human rights are being discussed, they are often divided up into three categories called generations.  A reflection of the three generations of human rights can be seen in the popular phrase of the French Revolution: liberté, egalité, fraternité.  These generations of human rights were first formally established by Karel Vasak, a Czech jurist, in 1979.  This division of the types of human rights helps improve conversations about rights, especially those involving legislation and the role that governments play in human rights.

The First Generation: Liberté

The first generation of human rights encompasses an individual’s civil and political rights.  First generation rights can be divided into two sub-categories.  The first sub-category relates to norms of “physical and civil security.”  This includes not committing acts of torture, slavery, or treating people inhumanely.  The second sub-category relates to norms of “civil-political liberties or empowerments.”  This includes rights such as freedom of religion and the right to political participation.

First generation rights are based around the rights of the individual person and are often the focus of conversations about human rights in western countries.  They became a priority for western nations during the Cold War.  Some documents that focus on first generation rights are the United States Bill of Rights and Articles 3 through 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The Second Generation: Égalité

The second generation of human rights encompasses socio-economic rights.  Second generation rights can also be divided into two sub-categories.  The first sub-category relates to norms of the fulfillment of basic needs, such as nutrition and healthcare.  The second sub-category relates to norms of the fulfillment of “economic needs.”  This includes fair wages and sufficient standards of living.

Second generation rights are based on establishing equal conditions.  They were often resisted by western nations during the Cold War, as they were perceived as “socialist notions.”  The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and Articles 22 through 27 of the UDHR focus on these rights. 

Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, first and second generation rights were considered to be divided by the responsibility they place on governments.  First generation human rights were looked at as being a “negative obligation,” which means that they place a responsibility on governments to ensure that the fulfillment of those rights is not being impeded.  Second generation human rights were viewed as being a “positive obligation,” which means that they place a responsibility on governments to actively ensure that those rights are in fact fulfilled.  After the Berlin Wall fell, perspectives shifted to see governments as having the responsibility to “respect, protect, promote and fulfill” these rights. 

The Third Generation: Fraternité

The third generation of human rights encompasses broad class rights.  Third generation rights can be divided into sub-categories as well.  The first sub-category relates to “the self-determination of peoples” and includes different aspects of community development and political status.  The second sub-category is related to the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.

Third generation rights are often found in agreements that are classified as “soft law,” which means they are not legally binding.  Some examples of these agreements include the UDHR and the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.  This generation of rights is challenged more often than the first and second generations, but it is being increasingly acknowledged on an international level. These rights started gaining acknowledgement as a result of “growing globalization and a heightened awareness of overlapping global concerns” such as extreme poverty.

Overall, recognizing the differences between each generation of rights can help us to better understand how broad the field of human rights is and how varied the issues involved truly are.  Each kind of right is best fulfilled through the use of different forms of legislation, and recognizing the different generations of rights can improve our ability to identify the what type of legislation is best suited for dealing with a particular issue.