Who’s Afraid of BDS?

A photo of the Wailing Wall and al-Asqa mosque in Jerusalem.
The wailing wall and al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Source: Tina Kempin Reuter

On 15 August 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a travel ban on two US Congresswomen, Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar.  His decision was a surprising reversal from a mere month ago, when both PM Netanyahu and Israeli’s Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, confirmed that Reps. Tlaib and Omar would be allowed into Israel “out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.”  While the final catalyst for this reversal is credited to the machinations of US President Donald Trump, the primary cause for the travel ban, according to PM Netanyahu, is Reps. Tlaib’s and Omar’s support for the transnational Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, a concerted effort to compel the State of Israel to revolutionize how it works with Palestinians within and around Israel’s borders.  This post aims to unpack the historical and cultural context of the BDS Movement, analyze the fault lines within the BDS Movement, and suggest ways for BDS to mend these divides while sharpening its effectiveness in advocating for the human rights of Palestinians.

Originating the Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions (BDS) Movement

From 31 August to 7 September 2001, the United Nations held the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (WCAR, also called the Durban Conference, as it was held in Durban, South Africa), billed as “providing an opportunity for the world to engage, for the first time in the post-apartheid era, in a broad agenda to combat racism and related issues.”  Within this anti-racist, anti-apartheid ethos, world leaders sought to locate and eradicate large-scale structures bolstering racist ideology and marginalizing populations based off racial and ethnic identity.  Almost all states at the WCAR were in total agreement that Zionism, the political movement to establish and protect a wholly-Jewish nation, was indeed racist.  Many actors arguing against the ideology of Zionism claimed that, although the Jewish people have the right to create their own state, ethnic cleansing of the indigenous people (Palestinians) rendered the current form of Zionism a racist ideology.  It was at the Durban Conference that BDS finds its intellectual roots, as many Middle East / North African states (specifically, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Republic, and Yemen) agreed to utterly isolate Israel (economically, intellectually, culturally, politically) until Israel revolutionized its relationship with indigenous Palestinians.  Of course, calls for isolationism, itself a remnant of how the world treated South African during its apartheid practices, were eclipsed by the 9/11 attacks against the US a mere four days after the Durban Conference ended.  It was also at the Durban Conference that the “Red-Green” alliance was formed between radical leftist and Islamist groups, collectively impugning Israel’s treatment of indigenous Palestinians.

The intellectual seeds of BDS were planted, and two years later, the world would see the harvest.  On 8 December 2003, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) requested the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion regarding the Israeli-built wall surrounding East Jerusalem, seeking to ascertain if the wall constituted a breach of international law (specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949).  The ICJ (relying on oral and written testimony from over 50 UN Member States, the League of Arab States, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the European Union – amongst others) declared the wall bisecting Jerusalem and the continuation of Israeli settlements (displacing indigenous Palestinians) indeed violated international humanitarian law.  The ICJ concluded their opinion, stating Israel should (a) cease construction on the wall and dismantle structures within the Occupied Palestinian Territory, (b) respect the right of the Palestinian people’s right to Self Determination (read this article for more information), and (c) pay reparations for costs incurred to the Palestinian people; furthermore, the ICJ contended that all State Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention should ensure Israel complies with this advisory opinion.  While the advisory opinion alone was relatively toothless on the international stage (as, again, the US and Israel refused to comply with these stipulations), the ICJ’s decision kickstarted the eventual BDS movement two years later.

On 9 July 2005, over 150 Palestinian Civil Society Organizations (representing Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation, and Arab citizens of Israel) signed an open letter to global civil society actors declaring their intent to boycott Israeli products, divesting business activities from working with Israel, and sanctioning groups continuing to aid the Israeli State.  The letter argues, in light of Israel’s refusal to adhere to the ICJ’s recommendation, settlements extending into East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank (see this article for a map of Palestine land loss since 1946) triggered the need for a transnational, nonviolent movement aimed at compelling the State of Israel to abide by the ICJ’s recommendation.  The letter, echoing the anti-apartheid boycott movement of the 1960s – 1990s, contends that all persons of conscience (including Israeli citizens and members of the Jewish faith worldwide) have a moral obligation to pressure those in power (e.g., business leaders, political decision-makers, and other persons of high influence) to forcefully condemn Israel’s maltreatment of Palestinian populations.  The three fundamental demands of the BDS movement of the State of Israel are as follows:

  1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  3. Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

Per the BDS official website, the Movement boasts several consequences of its ongoing efforts, including:

  • A 46% drop in foreign direct investment in Israel in 2014
  • Israeli weapon manfacturers complaining of an export crisis due to “less desire for Israeli=made products”.
  • Refusals from major artists (such as Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, Faithless, Lauryn Hill, Brian, Eno, and Elvis Costello).
  • A formal recognition from the State of Israel that the BDS Movement presents a strategic threat to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Since its publication, the BDS movement has largely gained the most traction on college campuses (long understood to be a bastion of political activism).  Simultaneously, the BDS Movement has been associated with radical anti-Zionism, bordering on anti-Semitism.  This association has been the fodder of many political and civil society leaders and has crippled the efficacy of Palestinian Rights activists.

 

Peace activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti
Peace activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti. Source: Yazeed Kamaldien, Creative Commons

 

Critiques of BDS

Critiques of the BDS Movement fall into three broad categories: (1) issues surrounding its founder and leader, Omar Barghouti; (2) BDS’s opposition to the internationally-accepted Two-State Solution; and (3) accusations of antisemitic rhetoric and subsequent promotion of violence.

Founder of the BDS Movement and author of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights, Omar Barghouti, quotes Richard Falk (former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation on of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied) early in his text, stating:

The recent developments in Gaza are especially disturbing because they express so vividly a deliberate intention on the part of Israel and its allies to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty… If ever the ethos of “a responsibility to protect”, recently adopted by the UN Security Council as the basis of “humanitarian intervention” is applicable, it would be to act now to start protecting the people of Gaza from further pain and suffering. (p. 36)

Falk levels a thoughtful critique of both Israel’s and the international community’s abdication of protecting the human rights of Palestinian individuals.  These critiques, shared by many in the global community, fall on deaf ears, for Barghouti has, in many respects, poisoned the well from which BDS-activists guzzle.  Barghouti has been viably accused of tax evasion (to the tune of 700 000 USD), vociferously argued against a potential two-state solution, lambasted Palestinian academic and cultural leaders from debating with their Israeli counterparts, and has been accused of espousing views suggesting the ‘human rights of Palestinians are more equal than the human rights of Israelis’.

Beyond the problematization of BDS’s Founder, other cultural and political forces call into question the endgame of the BDS Movement.  Former US Ambassador to Israel (2011 – 2017), Daniel B. Shapiro, recently argued in The Atlantic the BDS Movement “advocates the end of Israel, rather than the establishment of two states, and assigns as responsibility for the conflict, in all its historical complexity, to Israel alone”.  Other critics, such as the Anti-Defamation League (an international Jewish NGO) has formally classified the BDS Movement as antisemitic.  Australian politicians have noted pro-BDS protests feature acts of violence; British academics voted against Israeli boycotts, noting these boycotts constrict peaceful dialogue between Israeli intellectual leaders and the rest of the world; and American politicians note that BDS can empower antisemitism and undermine the lives and livelihoods of young Israeli scientists. Furthermore, symbolic of many global academics’ ambivalence towards the BDS Movement, philosopher Judith Butler suggests a third path: collaborating with intellectual and cultural Israelis without accepting funding from the Israeli State.  This move, Butler suggests, sidesteps the thorny issue of discrimination on the basis of nationality (e.g., refusing to work with Israeli academics simply wholly due to their Israeli citizenship) while still eschewing affiliation with the Israeli government.

Considering the complexity of the BDS Movement, with its goal of unshackling indigenous Palestinians and its questionable methods and leadership, I now pose the question: what lessons can transformational solidarity movements teach BDS, allowing it to deftly address its many criticisms and simultaneously bolster its efficacy to advocate for the human rights of Palestinians? 

 

A man holds a rainbow Pride protest sign with phrases including “End Israeli occupation”, “Queers for a free Palestine”, and “Fight against: racism, Islamophobia, homo/transphobia, antisemitism, apartheid”
“Queers for Palestine” by Magdalena, Creative Commons

Embracing Complexity within Transformational Solidarity Movements

Dr. Anne Garland Mahler, in her text From the Tricontinental to the Global South: Race, Radicalism, and Transnational Solidarity, alludes to an ideal form of solidarity movements; this form is defined by qualities such as transnationalism (e.g., a widening of solidarity membership to include sympathizers of many, seemingly incongruous nationalisms – such as Palestinian and Israeli), transracial (e.g., not only including diversity ethnicities, such as Jewish and Arab, but an antiracist alignment of said ethnicities), anti-neoliberal (e.g., rejecting the ‘built-in’ nature of inequalities along dimensions related to socioeconomic status, level of education, political access, and health), and horizontalist (e.g., eschewing rigid hierarchies of authority within an organization).  While her original analysis centers around the Tricontinental Solidarity Movement, a Cuban-borne political movement attempting to interlock methods and goals of liberation found within Asian, African, and Latin American peoples, leaders of the BDS Movement would do well to heed her call.

The BDS Movement, at base, aims to transform the lives of Palestinians – the endgame is to reduce violence, promote negative and positive peace, and provide the conditions within life that allow an individual and a people the resources and structures required to build harmony, enjoy prosperity, promote health, and protect equity.  Transformational movements fixate not only on the immediate tragedies of war and conflict, but they additionally fixate on the long-term situations giving rise to sustainable peace.  Mahler correctly locates a critical juncture within this equation – transformational movements must ally themselves with other, perhaps seemingly disparate, movements also aspiring for liberation.  This relational space of ally-ship is precisely where the BDS Movement should aim to stride.  These allies (and partners in transformational struggles) may include prominent Arab-Jewish transracial and Israeli-Palestinian transnational organizations.  These potential allies also include Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam (facilitating intentional encounters between Israeli and Palestinian groups), the Children of Abraham (emphasizing the spiritual and religious dimensions required of Israeli-Palestinian peace processes), the Alliance of Middle East Peace (a political lobbying coalition proposing legislation promoting peace in the MENA region), and Peace Oil (an for-profit company promoting economic interdependency between Arabs and Israelis).  Alliances between BDS and these organizations may increase accountability for ‘bad actors’ within the BDS Movement, demonstrate cooperation between Arab and Israelis (rather than domination or antagonism), and sidestep the maligned efforts of ‘spoilers’ within peacebuilding processes.

From a peace and human rights perspective, the BDS Movement should aspire to be one of solidarity – meaning its membership, supporters, and leaders coalesce their methods of transformation within three domains: (1) electoral democracy, (2) opposition, and (3) dialogue.  Specifically, global sympathizers of the BDS Movement should consider continuously voting for candidates and measures ultimately empowering peacebuilding between Israel and Palestine, utilizing nonviolent methods of protesting anti-peace individuals and organizations (boycotts, divestments, and sanctions are obvious examples here – what is missing is a clear focus on the definitive spoilers of peace) and finally, engaging in good-faith, long-term dialogue within their own ranks and between the BDS Movement and other allies and potential adversaries.

Australia: Dreaming of Reconciliation

Introduction

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples’ indigenous communities boast the oldest documented forms of culture in the world.  For over 60,000 years (and some claim these communities have been in the Australian ‘neighborhood’ for 80,000 years), these societies were comprised of at least 500 distinct ethnic groups, sharing overarching worldviews and belief systems, but with widely diverse symbols and rituals, methods of exploring and explaining the world around them, and material expressions of their cultural heritage.  Over the course of tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal peoples developed the oldest intellectual, religious, and artistic traditions in human history.  As do all cultures, these traditions morphed and took shape over time, as the values of the Aboriginal peoples developed, as their surrounding ecological environment changed, and finally as colonizing forces destroyed much of the Aboriginal peoples and heritages.  This post provides a brief overview of the colonization of Aboriginal communities and how, hundreds of years later, descendants of both Aboriginal communities and New Australians are working together to reconcile their shared traumatic history through the creation of shared cultural histories.

Aboriginal rock art depicting a contact ship from colonizing forces
“Sailing ship contact art” by Jon Connell, Creative Commons

Colonial Past, Post-Colonial Future?

Broadly defined, colonization is the long-standing political practice of settling a population onto a new territory by subjugating and / or eradicating the current occupants. Colonization is rooted in domination – an assertion of power (e.g., political, economic, militaristic) for the benefit of the colonizing state.  In essence, colonizers seek land or other natural resources, and they justify forcible expansion through various arguments from the religious (e.g., manifest destiny, divine rule) to the ethical (e.g., a ‘civilizing mission’) to the practical (e.g., terra nullius).  Colonization is different from imperialism in the sense that imperialists seek absolute control over a territory, whereas colonizers seek to permanently settle a new population onto a territory.  Colonization has ancient roots extending to the Romans, Moors, and Ottomans and likely beyond.  Edward Said’s (1978) seminal text Orientalism helped usher in ‘postcolonial studies’, an intellectual framework intending to deconstruct the horrific consequences colonialism have had on global human development.  At the most basic level, postcolonialism aims to explore and explain the world through the eyes of the ‘colonized people’, namely the indigenous groups that were and are repressed by colonizing forces and how this repression plays out in the modern day. In the case of Australia, this means Aboriginal communities.

For 200 years, contact between Aboriginal groups and outside world produced largely positive results, including trade relations and the sharing of technologies.  Then in 1770, English Captain James Cook and his cadre begin settling in Australia, bringing with them disease, dispossession, and direct conflict.  Within 10 years, the Aboriginal population was decimated; direct (e.g. violence) and indirect (e.g. alcoholism) effects of colonization murdered 90% of these communities.  Even today, the violent legacy of colonization cascades into the lived experience of Aboriginal Australians.  This collective trauma still impacts these individuals at the biological level (e.g., pathologically high rates of embodied stress), psychological level (e.g., higher rates of suicide), and the societal level (e.g., placing trauma as a central component of cultural production; Krieg, 2009).  In the span of about 200 years, the historical and cultural legacies of the oldest societies on the planet were either intentionally destroyed or forcibly assimilated.  In 1991, however, the Australian government moved to finally reconcile this violent past with surviving members of Aboriginal communities, drawing on the wisdom of these communities themselves.

The archaeological dig site of the Canning Stock Route
“MX MM YIWARRA KUJU” by Secretaría de Cultura Ciudad de México, Creative Commons

Reconciliation: Measuring Success & The Canning Stock Route Project

In 1991, the Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody set the stage for reconciliation processes between Aboriginal and new Australians.  The following decade saw the government-sponsored Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and its successor, the NGO Reconciliation Australia, standardize and elevate reconciliation processes between Aboriginal and new Australians.  Reconciliation Australia posits five dimensions must be addressed in successful reconciliation attempts: (1) race relations; (2) equality and equity; (3) institutional integrity; (4) historical acceptance; (5) unity.  McIntosh (2014) further clarifies best practices of Australian reconciliation efforts by measuring these attempts through the Reconciliation Process Analysis (RPA). The RPA grounds its prescription in two critical factors: visioning (imagining the ‘end state’ of reconciliation, i.e. unity between Aboriginal and new Australians, as decreed by Reconciliation Australia) and backcasting (workings backwards from this vision and labelling tangible steps that have the potential to lead to this reconciliatory vision; McIntosh, 2014).  He lists three stages in the RPA:

  • Stage 1: “Search[ing] for all available information on the convergence of interests that created the agenda for reconciliation”; this emphasizes the “spaces of encounter or contact zone”.
  • Stage 2: Understanding how these spaces of encounter can lead to ‘tipping points’, whereby reconciliation processes are unstoppable both in public and private discourse; in effect, how to move from theory to practice.
  • Stage 3: Creating a reconciliation ‘report card’ by comparing the current state of affairs to visioning and backcasting efforts undertaken by reconciliation workers from both sides of the conflict.

Utilizing the RPA clarifies the success rate of reconciliation for the practitioner and, more importantly, offers concrete steps and directives for the actors involved in reconciliation processes.  By utilizing this framework, Aboriginal and Western Australians now have a blueprint and a tool for functional analysis.

One documented reconciliatory success is the that of the Nguarra Kuju Walyja (translating to “One Country, One People” in a local Aboriginal dialect) Canning Stock Route Project (CSRP).  The CSRP uses cartographic rendering from both Western and Aboriginal Australian sources to create a new transcultural map of portions of Western Australia that were colonized by the English (Milroy & Revell, 2013).  This project involved combining colonial-era mapping (originally belonging to Surveyor Alfred Canning) with religious artistic techniques belonging to the indigenous communities forcibly displaced and murdered by Canning and his crew (Scott, 2011). The CSRP features a hybrid of Western and Indigenous art media (cartography, sand illustration, paint, etc.) for the purpose of intercultural apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

To learn more of the artists involved in the project, click here, and to see the artwork used in the CSRP, click here.

Processes such as these benefit not only the public who consumes the art, but also the researchers, artists, and practitioners who work together on the project (Milroy & Revell, 2013, Smithers Graeme & Mandawe, 2017).  An autoethnographic and reflexive examination of the reconciliation processes enjoyed by the producers of the CSRP would likely reveal changes in outlook between these producers; the act of physically participating in the creation of a reconciliation project may have more tangible effects on the artists than the public.  This and other initiatives similar to the Canning Stock Route Project should be analyzed using McIntosh’s RPA to assess tangible reconciliation outcomes and their impacts in the broader communities these projects serve.  This form of reconciliation research would connect the general benefits of reconciliation, such as the integration of histories, with empirical support.  Reconciliation is, after all, both an art and a science.

An Aboriginal Australian standing on a mountain in the Australian outback
“Injalak DSC01824 NT” by Ian Cochrane, Creative Commons

The Dreaming & The Land

A central aim of the CSRP was an intentional integration of European history (vis-à-vis ‘Western Geography’) and Aboriginal history (vis-à-vis the land-based worldview of The Dreaming). This history is co-written, it is co-owned, and it draws on cultural heritages and strengths of both parties. We are all familiar with the notion of Western Geography – but what is the Aboriginal Dreaming?

The Dreaming, loosely translated, means several things: the time of creation (when animistic spirits sang the world into existence), the spiritual / ethical code of an Aboriginal individual, and the cultural laws governing Aboriginal tribes (Milroy & Revell, 2013).  The Dreaming is both a worldview and a system of behavior – there is no differentiation within many Aboriginal societies.

The Dreaming informs Aboriginal tribes of their cultural history and collective memory through story, art (with particular emphasis on performative aspects, such as dance), pilgrimage, and other rites / rituals (Petchovsky, San Roque & Beskow, 2003). The Dreaming is the spiritual and cultural tradition of Aboriginals, and the Dreaming is central to every facet of their lives. The Dreaming, Aboriginal Australia’s religious and cultural system, is literally rooted in the Australian landscape (Milroy & Revell, 2013).  Landmarks are holy sites to the Aboriginals; some locations’ sacredness is shared by all tribes, some tribes, or one tribe.  The unifying factor, amidst hundreds of Aboriginal traditions, is the relationship between person, spirit, and land in Australia.  The spiritual lives of Aboriginal Australians are nourished by this relationship; by the same token, land theft and forced displacement robs the Aboriginal not only of his or her Country but also their spiritual home and fortitude.  The CSRP, at its most fundamental, approached reconciliation through the land.  Land theft cleaved the relationship between colonizers and Aboriginal communities, therefore land sharing may mend this relationship.

Aboriginal rock art depicting a communal celebration
“Injalak DSC01797 NT” by Ian Cochrane, Creative Commons

A Dream of Reconciliation

Initiatives such as the Canning Stock Route Project aim to engender sustainable peace and reconciliation between descendants of indigenous populations and their colonizers – this is at the heart of healing from cultural violence.  Other similar reconciliation movements, such as those between European Americans and Native Americans, must take heed from the successes of the CSRP.  Government policies, such as reparations, are not enough to successfully reconcile cultures dominated by violence and repression.  Successful reconciliation also hinges on heritage – such as Aboriginal societies’ profound love of and respect for their land. nHeritage lives through art, through wisdom texts, and through stories passed down over the course of many millennia (in the case of Aboriginal communities, 60,000 years and more). nIf the modern world truly seeks to heal from its colonial past, the glorious histories, beliefs, and heritages of indigenous communities must drive future reconciliation.

Below are images of Aboriginal rock art and of the Australian landscape that may have once inspired the Aboriginal Dreaming. 

For more information about rock art, visit here, here, and here

For information on the powerful connection between Aboriginal communities and land, visit here.  

For a greater in-depth explanation of the Aboriginal Dreaming, visit here.

Aboriginal rock art depicting a kangaroo
“Burrup rock art” by Jussarian, Creative Commons.

 

Aboriginal rock art depicting a man
“Painting” by Francesco, Creative Commons

 

a rock formation on a mountain in the Australian outback
“The Three Sisters, Katoomba, NSW” by Jan Smith, Creative Commons

 

References

Borer, T. A. (2006). Telling the Truths. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Krieg, A. (2009). The experience of collective trauma in Australian Indigenous communities. Australian Psychiatry, 17(special supplement), 28-32.

McIntosh, I. S. (2014). Reconciliation, you’ve got to be Dreaming: Exploring methodologies for monitoring and achieving Aboriginal reconciliation in Australia by 2030. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 32(1).

Milroy, J. & Revell, G. (2013). Aboriginal story systems: Re-mapping the West, knowing country, sharing space. Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, 3, 1-24.

Petchovsky, L., San Roque, C. & Beskow, M. (2003). Jung and the Dreaming Analytical psychology’s encounters with Aboriginal culture. Transcultural Psychology, 40(2), 208-238.

Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

Scott, S. (2011). Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route. Australia Historical Studies, 42, 289-294.

Smithers Graeme, C. & Mandawe, E. (2017). Indigenous geographies: Research as reconciliation. The Interdisciplinary Indigenous Policy Journal, 8(2), 1-19.

Health & the Black Body

A black woman expresses surprise
Pop Art Explanation Explain by JanBaby, Creative Commons

Introduction

The field of medical anthropology is charged with exploring how cultures determine health outcomes and how health determines culture within a given population.  Culture is here defined here as the continuous process by which humans create and communicate shared values, customs, and knowledge within a society; health is here defined as the state and process by which an individual promotes well-being and quality of life.  Medical anthropology is especially interested in marginalized populations, exploring how these groups both suffer from health disparities and overcome these disparities through culturally-particular sources of resilience and strength.  At the core of medical anthropology’s exploration is the concept of our three ‘bodies’: (1) our physical body, i.e. the body of lived experiences; (2) our social body, i.e. how culture symbolizes and represents our personhood; and finally (3) our body politic, i.e. how our bodies are regulated, surveilled, and controlled over our lifetime (Scheper-Hughes & Lock, 1987). Individuals suffering from any form of violence (direct, indirect, and / or structural) typically suffer worse health outcomes, unless other protective factors (e.g. resilience, medical intervention) can transform this violence.

Of particular importance within the American ‘health culture’ is that of black bodies – how Americans of African descent suffer from higher rates of diseases, illnesses, and sicknesses than their counterparts from European descent.  This health-based intersection of nationality, ethnicity, and violence is not only a concern of medical anthropologists – many other academic disciplines are working hard to predict, control, and prevent health disparities within Americans of African descent.  For example, I currently manage a health and clinical psychology laboratory at UAB under the direction of UAB Psychology professor Dr. Bulent Turan.  Our lab explores the biopsychosocial burden of stigma on health outcomes in African American populations.  The question of how culture enacts stress, trauma, and negative health outcomes in minority populations, and how to prevent this from happening in the future, is a huge task – first undertaken by medical anthropology, now including diverse fields such as health psychology, public health, neuroscience, peace and conflict studies, and medical sociology.  In honor of Black History Month, this blog post explores how cultural prejudice and hate quietly kills Americans of African descent.

The Allostatic Model of Stress
The Allostatic Model of Stress, Author’s Collection

Allostasis and Structural Violence

One of the most prominent and empirically-validated theories to explore the relation between culture and health is that of allostasis, first proposed by Drs. Peter Sterling (a neuro-biologist) and Joseph Eyer (an epidemiologist) in 1988.  These scientists and their research team sought to explain how stressful life events impact an individual’s health, first drawing on Walter B. Cannon’s famous dictum of homeostasis– the idea that our bodies attempt to ‘correct’ itself in response a changing environment. Homeostasis explains why, when you step outside on a cold day, that your body begins to sweat to cool you down. However, Sterling and Eyer ran into an obstacle with homeostasis.  Individuals react widely differently to physiological stress, and Cannon was unable to explain why this might be the case.  Sterling and Eyer proposed that stress over the lifetime creates ‘wear and tear’ within our bodies – higher amounts of stress (for example, chronic stress resulting from racial discrimination) create a higher allostatic load(AL). High allostatic load, according to Sterling and Eyer’s research, results in symptoms including:

  1. High blood pressure / hypertension
  2. High levels of fatty deposits in our blood stream
  3. Blood clotting
  4. Atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of arteries)
  5. Suppression of our immune response system
  6. High demands of oxygen by our heart
  7. Having a stroke
  8. Congestive heart failure / heart attack

Allostatic theory (and subsequent empirical support) is quick to add that not all stress is damaging to an individual – eustressoccurs when challenging life events actually make us stronger (for example, the stress your body endures during a challenging workout at the gym).  However, chronic and unpredictable stressors are embodied and produce the aforementioned health concerns (this kind of stress is called distress).  Therefore, it may be assumed that individuals at a high risk of distress over the lifetime are placed at high risk for negative health outcomes, ranging from momentary physiological arousal to premature death.

A primary driver of chronic, unpredictable distress is structural violence, defined by Galtung (1969) as cultural inequalities (especially lack of access to power) preventing individuals from reaching their full potential. Structural violence is often difficult to pinpoint because there is no one culprit – no one person is responsible for unequal access to healthcare for Americans of African descent; our social system itself is configured to place minorities at a greater risk for distress and lower health outcomes.  Farmer (2004) correctly locates several insidious causes for structural violence across cultures, citing historical factors, political forces, latent racism and other forms of unconscious bias, and economic orders as a few examples.

To summarize, here are the takeaways of the complex relation between allostatic theory and structural violence:

  • Vulnerable populations have unequal access to power within a society.
  • These populations experience distress due to this unequal access.
  • Chronic distress manifests in the physical bodies of these populations, leading to high allostatic load.
  • High allostatic load results in health disparities.
  • These health disparities go unaddressed due to unequal access.

While indeed tautological, this feedback loop illuminates the vicious cycle many Americans of African descent embody – bodies unjustly assailed and structures unfairly positioned.

A conceptual map, noting five impacts on human health: individual behavior, social circumstances, genetics and biology, medical care, and physical environment
Social Determinants of Health Map by Jsonin, Creative Commons

Black Bodies & Intervention

As previously mentioned, many medical anthropologists conceive of three ‘bodies’ of health: physical, social, and political. The relative health of these bodies acts on one another; it is therefore paramount to address health promotion in a holistic fashion – not only ‘curing the disease’ but also disarming cultural forces that predisposed disease in the first place.  Below, I organize threats to and interventions for health in Americans of African descent, according to their physical, social, and political bodies.

Physical

Physical bodies are the stuff of muscles, of skin, of blood.  For Americans of African descent, population-level physical health and wellbeing is simply incomparable to Americans of European descent in major ways, including: higher rates of diabetes; of hypertension; of coronary heart disease; of cardiovascular disease; of prostate, lung, and breast cancer; and of asthma-related death.  Furthermore, American adolescents of African descent suffer disproportionally from sexually transmitted infections.  The infant mortality rate of these Americans is approximately three times higher than infants born to American mothers of European descent.  Geronimus, Hicken, Keene, and Bound (2006) demonstrated Americans of African descent experience higher allostatic load than other Americans, controlling for demographic variables, such as education and poverty levels.

According to a systematic review by Crook et al. (2009), there are a few promising avenues for intervention to address physical health in Americans of African descent.  These include placing health centers within communities of marginalized populations, using trained volunteer community health workers, and hiring nurses from within the communities of these populations.  Additionally, ‘traditional’ healthcare settings (i.e. hospitals) are not necessary to delivery physical health interventions; these interventions can be administered in community centers.  Of critical importance here is self-representation – members of marginalized communities empathize with and deliver quality care to members of other marginalized communities.

Social

Our social bodies are reflective of cultural norms, symbols, and values.  This body may be conceived of as psychosocial experiences. Our social body is maintained by the attitudes other people have about us.  In the case of Americans from African descent, bias, prejudice, and discrimination oftentimes characterize their social body.  Clinical-community psychologist Dr. Lyubansky of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is quick to assert that this phenomena looks like “racism not always by racists”.  In line with allostatic theory, chronic and unpredictable experiences with bias and discrimination induces stress; which, again, causes stress and disease.

Dr. Janice Gassam, applied organizational psychologist, draws on scientific and popular literature relating to social stigma and discrimination and recently published a short guide to disarming unconscious bias.  First, we must be aware of our biases; one way to do this is by taking Harvard’s Implicit Association Test.  Next, members of majority or privileged populations must make a long-term commitment to reducing bias; this phenomenon will not happen overnight.  Next, specific behaviors related to bias must be neutralized; this includes unfair hiring practices and medical maltreatment.  Finally, Dr. Gassam asserts that teamwork with members of minority populations can fundamentally disarm cultural bias – evidenced by Edward B. Tichener’s and others’ research on the Mere Exposure Effect.

Political

Finally, the body politic refers to the relation of an individual and her or his political milieu, specifically how the human body is a political tool.  The relation is bidirectional as it relates to health and medicine: bodies are both governed by political decisions while also exerting power over the political process. Some bodies (and their corresponding health or otherwise) are prioritized within a political system; other bodies are ignored or violated.  A striking example of the violation of political bodies in American culture is voter suppression; we may look to the recent Georgia gubernatorial election and the myriad audacious tactics to keep Americans of African descent out of the voting booth.  If individuals cannot vote for policies that may benefit their physical and social health, these individuals do not have political health.

Within the context of the United States of America, voting behavior is the primary way disenfranchised individuals exert political control; it is therefore paramount to empower minority voters so these individuals may elect leaders dedicated to championing causes related to health promotion within marginalized communities.  The think-tank Center for American Progress offers five ways to protect the votes of Americans of African descent: (1) eliminate strict voter ID laws; (2) prevent unnecessary poll closures; (3) prohibit harmful voter purges; (4) prioritize African American voters in political outreach; and especially (5) recruit African American candidates for political office.  Marginalized Americans must be able to vote for policies and representatives that can break the health disparity cycle.

Conclusion

Observing, predicting, preventing, and controlling health disparities within marginalized populations is an immensely complex issue. As stated in the beginning of this post, medical anthropologists take a cultural standpoint to examine these issues; one prominent theory in this discipline is the systematic examination of ‘bodies’ – how these bodies are affected by health and disease alike. Other fields, such as health psychology, take a more empirical approach – locating specific points of intervention within an individual’s biopsychosocial health processes.  This post combines these approaches, explaining how health deficits arise within the communities of Americans of African descent, utilizing allostatic theory and structural violence.  To reduce these health disparities, chronic stressors and structural barriers plaguing these communities must be transformed.  This transformation begins by accepting a simple fact about black health: the stress from hate can kill you.

References

Crook, E. D., Bryan, N. B., Hanks, R., Slagle, M. L., Morris, C. G., Ross, M. C., Torres, H. M., Williams, R. C., Voelkel, C., Walker, S. & Arrieta, M. I. (2009). A review of interventions to reduce disparities in cardiovascular disease in African Americans. Ethnicity & Disease, 19(2), 204-208.

Farmer, P. (2004). An anthropology of structural violence. Current Anthropology, 45(3), 305-325.

Galtung, H. (1969). Violence, peace, and peace research. Journal of Peace Research, 6(3), 167-191.

Geronimus, A. T., Hicken, M., Keene, D. & Bound, J. (2006). “Weathering” and age patterns of allostatic load scores among black and whites in the United States.American Journal of Public Health, 96(5), 826-833.

Scheper-Hughes, N. & Lock, M. M. (1987). The mindful body: A prolegomenon to future work in medical anthropology. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 1(1), 6-41.

Sterling, P. & Eyer, J. (1988). “Allostasis: A new paradigm to explain arousal pathology” in S. Fisher and J. Reason (Eds.) Handbook of Life Stress, Cognition and Health. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Disability Rights, Employment, and Housing in a Cross-Cultural Perspective

three men unpacking soda for distribution
“Men at Work” by Andreas Wulff, Creative Commons

The ability to be rewarded for making meaningful contributions to society and to choose our own private residence are two facets of life many of us often take for granted.  However, many individuals with a form of disability often encounter barriers during their journey locating work and housing.  These barriers can arise from social isolation, discriminatory and / or inadequate governmental policies, economic hardship, or simply a lack of awareness of resources designed to aid persons with disabilities to find employment and housing.  These material and immaterial barriers fall under the broad umbrella of ableism, defined here as “the intentional or unintentional discrimination or oppression of individuals with disabilities”.  The following post explores four case studies surrounding the themes of housing and employment and how various cultures have either failed to address these needs or offered innovative solutions to persons with disabilities.  Finally, for the purpose of this blog, disability is defined, in accordance with the Washington Group (2018), as “problems, such as impairment, activity limitation or participation restrictions that include the negative aspects of functioning” in the following six domains: (a) walking; (b) seeing; (c) hearing; (d) cognition; (e) self-care; and (f) communication.  This blog post offers an anthropologically-informed context for to upcoming panel ‘Disability Rights, Employment, and Housing in a Cross-Cultural Perspective’ at the Institute for Human Right’s Symposium on Disability Rights.

Disability Rights & Employment: South Africa

South Africa’s government of apartheid came to power in 1948 and institutionalized a cultural and political zeitgeist of xenophobia, discrimination, and violence towards the Other.  Throughout apartheid’s hold on South Africa, systems of cultural and structural violence were erected both within social life and in bureaucratic policy.  Apartheid is most infamous for its impact on racially-motivated violence; however, other forms of discrimination were enabled by apartheid policy and philosophy as well.  Engelbrecht (2006) notes that education systems institutionalized apartheid policies in curricula development and inclusivity within schools.  This specifically barred children with disabilities from actively participating in the education system, from primary through tertiary levels.  Englebrecht (2006) contends children with disabilities were actively excluded from South African governmentally-controlled education systems.  This means children with disabilities during the apartheid regime did not receive adequate preparation for entering into the workforce, thus placing these individuals at a low ‘tract’ and preventing them from seeking or acquiring meaningful employment.  Englebrecht (2006) emphasizes that discriminatory and / or prejudicial national policies focused on one marginalized population (e.g. apartheid) often seep into the experiences of other marginalized populations as well.  In short, government-sanctioned racist policies immobilized the disability community.  To repress one group is to repress all groups.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) was inaugurated in October of 1995, as mandated by the South African Constitution’s Human Rights Commission of 1994.  The SAHRC is charged with monitoring, preventing violations of, and educating the public about human rights within the South African context.  A specific function of the SAHRC is to examine how apartheid-era policies impacted South African civil society and how to eliminate the vestiges of structural violence still propagated by the former apartheid regime.  The SAHRC provides further evidence supporting Engelbrecht’s (2006) theory that the repression of children with disabilities would negatively impact South African workforce.  The SAHRC (2017) summarizes trends of disability employment, demonstrating that workforce equity (equally considering and making efforts to hire marginalized populations, such as the disability community) is nowhere near the South African Department of Labor’s goal of 7% by the year 2030.  In 2017, workplace equity was still under 2%, with 8 in 10 persons with disabilities unable to find employment (SAHRC, 2017).  A variety of reasons are given for this abysmally low number, including: lack of reasonable accommodation, inequality and discrimination, and a persistent inability to obtain a quality education.  The ghost of apartheid, it seems, haunts the disability community within South Africa, preventing a vast majority of persons with disabilities from obtaining education, training, and gainful employment.

The Liffey River, Dublin, Ireland
“Dublin – The Big Snow of 2010 – Along the Liffey” by William Murphy, Creative Commons

Disability Rights & Employment: Ireland

In 2017, the British Conservative government announced plans to cut the Employment and Support Allowance for persons with disabilities who were deemed ‘capable of preparing to return to work’ by 30£ / week (~$40 / week).  The British government implemented this policy as a ‘motivational tool’ for persons with disabilities and as an austerity measure, despite the fact that previous disability allowances (akin to welfare or social security measures in the United States) left 1/3 of allowance recipients struggling to afford food.  However, the ministers of Ireland, taking cue from their outraged constituents, have chosen a different path to empower persons with disabilities to find employment.  Instead of the ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ strategy of British Conservative MPs, Irish Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty and Minister of State for People with Disabilities Finian McGrath have chosen to listen to persons with disabilities themselves to assess the best way to promote gainful employment within the disability community.  In response to a 2017 policy brief Make Work Pay, Doherty, McGrath, and other policy-makers are distributing questionnaires to adults with disabilities and parents of young children with disabilities to assess the employment needs of the disability community (Clougherty, 2017).  This approach to governance, one defined by inclusivity and direct participation of the disability community, shows promise in exploring the complicated relationship between disability and employment.

Of particular importance in the employment-disability nexus is accounting for an individual’s preference for work and her or his form of disability.  The Irish ministers understand that low-functioning persons with disabilities will, for the entirety of their life, be simply unable to work.  These individuals require assistance from the government thereby ensuring these persons are included in society and are able to participate in decisions regarding their lives and livelihoods.  On the other hand, some individuals are temporarily disabled and do not require the same social security from governments.  By asking for input from persons with disabilities themselves, the Irish policy-makers are better equipped to make educated, inclusive, and effective policies and programs aimed at insuring equitable and equal employment within the disability community.

The Al-Saraya al-Hamra Fortress in Tripoli, Libya
“Al-Saraya al-Hamra Fortress, Tripoli” by David Stanley, Creative Commons

Disability Rights & Housing: Libya

The State of Libya, located at the Northern-most tip of Africa and bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, is in the midst of rebuilding civil society following the catastrophic Libyan Civil War of 2011.  For over forty years, Muammar Gaddafi ruled over Libya, attempting to introduce a socialist regime and command economy to the Libyan State.  During his reign, Gaddafi allegedly sought to implement a political philosophy of jamahiriya (جماهيرية‎), meaning “state of the masses” in Arabic – akin to ‘direct democracy’.  Through this system, Gaddafi created the national General People’s Congress, whose directives (including any form of a Libyan Constitution) could be superseded by the Basic People’s Congress, municipally-led executive and legislative bodies.  Hypothetically, this system placed most political power at the local level; however, Gaddafi’s actual dictatorial rule inverted the political equation.  In the past half century, this political system (again, on paper) aimed to enshrine the rights of persons with disabilities through the passage of the 1981 “Law on Disabled People”, arranging for “government provision of housing, home care, education, prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation for people with disability in Libya” (Hamed el-Sahly & Cusick, 2016, p. 12).  In political practice, Libyan persons with disabilities suffered major human rights violations, including lack of housing and home care, due to insufficient mechanisms of care and cultural taboos.

Although political and economic recovery may well be on the horizon for post-conflict Libya, cultural barriers prevent many Libyans with disabilities from securing independent and safe housing.  In a comparative study, many Libyans express unfavorable attitudes towards persons with disabilities along three dimensions: (1) lower ratings of willingness to empower the disability community; (2) higher ratings of exclusion; and (3) lower ratings of similarity between disabled and non-disabled people (Benomir, Nicholson & Beail, 2016).  Most pertinent to issues related to housing, Libyan participants scored high on the ‘need to shelter’ persons with disabilities – meaning intentionally secluding these individuals from broader society for fear of communal judgement and the social stigma attached to disability.  Furthermore, efforts to facilitate the transition from being ‘sheltered’ (living with a family member) to an autonomous home life is seen as a problem ‘for and by’ the disability community – i.e., it is the responsibility of the disability community alone to solve social issues related to their situation in life (Cusick & Hamed el-Sahly, 2018).  This demonstrates that governmental policies intending to enshrine disability rights are insufficient – societies themselves must be willing to tackle these issues head on.

A Hopi House
“Grand Canyon Hopi House 0073” by Grand Canyon National Park, Creative Commons

Disability Rights & Housing: Native Americans

Persons with disabilities with another form of marginalized identity (e.g. members of an indigenous group) are placed at a heightened risk for social isolation / exclusion, for physical and mental health concerns, and having disability-related needs go unmet (US Department of Health & Human Services, 2017).  Within American Indian / Alaska Native (AIAN) communities, this translates specifically into housing issues, as AIAN reservations already suffer from a lack of resources and infrastructural investment to provide for non-disabled AIAN individuals (US Department of Health & Human Services, 2017).  An estimated 21 – 69% of homes on reservations are overcrowded and have serious physical deficiencies compared with 5.9% of non-reservation US homes nationally (US National Council on Disability, 2003).  To address these intersecting concerns, the AIAN community, in tandem with the US government, have prepared and started implementing policy prescriptions to provide affordable, safe, and dignified housing to AIAN with disabilities.

Of primary concern in planning homes for persons with disabilities is utilizing principles of universal design – “guidelines for housing construction that would create a livable, marketable environment for everyone regardless of ability, age, or size” (US National Council on Disability, 2003, p. 94).  Currently, the American Indian Disability Technical Assistance Center provides assessments of universal design within reservations and makes design prescriptions if the home in question is not fully accessible.  Implementation of these prescriptions may fall to the American Indian Disability Legislation Project (AIDLP), a culturally-informed taskforce mandated to draft and pass legislation standardizing disability-related care (including autonomous and accessible housing) on Indian reservations (US Department of Health & Human Services, 2017).  The AIDLP, in addition to ensuring reservations adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act, acts as a cultural liaison between the disability community and AIAN community to ensure disability concerns are handled in a culturally-appropriate manner.  Finally, the AIDLP and other AIAN-affiliated, disability-related advocacy groups ground their research and implementation efforts by tackling both material (e.g. physical accessibility) and immaterial (e.g. cultural stigma) barriers (US Department of Health & Human Services, 2017).

Towards a Global Culture of Disability Empowerment

The preceding case studies illustrate that disability rights, especially related to employment and housing, are high complicated issues.  Historical events, such as apartheid and civil war, interact with governmental policies, such as austerity measures and indigenous sovereignty.  Underlying each of these examples is the ‘culture’ surrounding disability – how peoples across the world value or stigmatize the experiences and perspectives of the disability community.  In some cases, such as South Africa, systems of discrimination have erected structural barriers holding back people with disabilities, even though disability-related stigma may have lost its potency.  In other cases, such as American Indian / Alaska Native communities, an additional marginalized identity may facilitate an even greater emphasis on seeking justice and equity for persons with disabilities.  As local, national, and global disability movements aim to eliminate social exclusion and promote equality in life and livelihood, the myriad cultures of disability must be unpacked and explained.  This post argues that moving towards a global cultural of disability empowerment is indeed possible.  Once this culture of empowerment has been adopted, disability-related concerns, such as employment and housing, will be addressed and rectified across the globe.

Keep up with the latest announcements related to the upcoming Symposium on Disability Rights by following the IHR on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  And don’t forget to tag your Symposium-related posts with our event hashtag: #DisabilityRightsBHM

References

Benomis, A. M., Nicolson, R. I. & Beail, N. (2016). Attitudes towards people with intellectual disability in the UK and Libya: A cross-cultural comparison. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 2016, 1-9.

Clougherty, T. (2017). Make Work Pay: A New Agenda for Fairer Taxes. Cork, Ireland: Center for Policy Studies.

Cusick, A. & Hamed el-Sahly, R. M. (2018). People with disability are a medicalized minority: Findings of a scoping review. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 20(1), 182-196.

Engelbrecht, P. (2006). The implementation of inclusive education in South Africa after ten years of democracy. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 21(3), 253-264.

Hamed el-Sahly, R. M. & Cusick, A. (2016). Rehabilitation services in Benghazi, Libya: An organizational case study. Middle East Journal of Family Medicine, 14(9), 11-18.

South African Human Rights Commission (2017). Research Brief of Disability and Equality in South Africa. Braamfontein, South Africa: South African Human Rights Commission.

US Department of Health & Human Services (2017). Emerging LTSS Issues in Indian Country: Disability and Housing. Spokane, WA: Kauffman & Associates, Incorporated.

US National Council on Disability (2003). Understanding Disabilities in American Indian & Alaska Native Communities. Washington, DC: National Council on Disability.

Washington Group (2018, December 4). Statement of rationale for the Washington Group general measure on disability. Retrieved from http://www.washingtongroup-disability.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Rationale_WG_Short-1.pdf

Justice(s) for Crimes Against Humanity: The Uyghur Muslims in China

*a topographical map depicting where many Uyghur Muslims live in Western China*
“Outline map showing Keiry / Yutian County in Xinjiang, China” by centralasiatraveler, Creative Commons

In early November 2018, the United Nations confronted China about the Chinese government’s human rights record since 2013, with UN Member States pointing specifically to China’s suppression of the Tibetan people and for the barbaric ‘re-education camps’ used to indoctrinate the Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province.  China flatly denied these allegations, contending they are politically motivated and violate Chinese national sovereignty.  While the ongoing conflict regarding Tibet has been covered for decades (you can read an IHR post about it here), the plight of the Uyghur Muslims in China is arguably less familiar to laypersons with vested interests in human rights.  This blog post explores the history of the conflict with the Uyghur, how the international community typically handles these kinds of human rights violations, and what everyday citizens can do to help the Uyghur.  For another perspective on the plight of the Uyghur, read my colleague Dianna Bai’s post here.

History of the Conflict

The Uyghur are an ethnically distinct group, hailing originally from the Altai Mountains in Central Asia, now spread through Central and East Asia (Roberts, 2009).  Scholars frequently debate the heritage of the Uyghur; government-sanctioned Chinese historians claim the Uyghur are indigenous to the Tarim Basin (located within the Chinese Xinjiang province), while most historical accounts situate the Uyghur as descendants of peoples in modern-day Mongolia (Roberts, 2009).  Until recently, many scholars believed that the Soviet Union groomed Uyghur nationalist sentiments during the Cold War, intending to use the fledgling Uyghur people as a colonized Soviet pseudo-nation to exert political and cultural influence in the East Asian theater (Roberts, 2009).  This view has since been challenged, as Uyghur Muslims have long defined themselves an ethnically distinct group with the goal of creating their own nation on sovereign territory, intended to be called Uyghurstan (Roberts, 2009).  Today, the Uyghur of China largely practice Sunni Islam, speak their own language (similar to Uzbek), and some Uyghur label the territory they inhabit “East Turkestan”, not the Xinjiang providence of China.

The Xinjiang providence, located on the fragments of the ancient Silk Road, is rich in resources and attracted the migration of many Han Chinese to the province (aided and abetted by the Chinese government).  This migration brings us to the present day.  Beginning in 2009, the Chinese government has cracked down on Uyghur dissidents and rioters expressing a frustrated desire for autonomous rule (some of these Uyghur were subsequently exiled to the United States).  In 2016, the Chinese government amped up their approach to the Uyghur, attempting to squash Uyghur cultural practices to create a culturally homogenous Xinjiang province.  The Chinese justified these practices by claiming their motivation was to reduce religious extremism in the Xinjiang region.  Homogenization efforts included banning baby names (such as Medina, Jihad, and Muhammad) and restricting the length of beards; both aforementioned names and the tradition of long beards stem from the Uyghur’s Islamic faith.  These tactics are part of the Chinese government’s “Strike Hard” campaign, designed to specifically monitor the Uyghur situation in Xinjiang.  In addition to cultural destruction, the Chinese have recently implemented surveillance programs designed to monitor separatist movements, jihad-ism, or proto-nationalist sentiment.  Surveillance programs largely take the shape of indoctrination (or ‘re-education’) camps.

The United Nations has received verifiable reports that up to one million Uyghur (approximately 10-11% of the adult Muslim population in the region) are currently held against their will in these re-education camps.  The Chinese government, however, claims these are vocational centres, designed to empower the ethnic Uyghur to learn the Chinese language, Chinese law and ideology, and gain workplace skills.  Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress (more on the WUC later), has publicly decried the camps, as they incessantly monitor Uyghur prisoners through sophisticated facial recognition software, designed with the intention to predict individual or communal acts of protest through the analysis of the prisoners’ micro-expressions (and no, the current year is not 1984).  The prisoners in these camps are expected to ‘secularize’ and ‘modernize’; the Chinese government conditions the entrapped Uyghur Muslims by forcing the prisoners to wish Chinese President Xi Jinping ‘good health’ before the prisoners are given food, thank the Chinese government and Communist Party, and renounce devotion to the Islamic faith.  Furthermore, Uyghur Muslims have been forced to eat pork and drink alcohol during their imprisonment which, for many devout Muslims, is forbidden by the Islamic faith.  One escapee who found asylum in Kazakhstan testified that she “worked at a prison in the mountains” in Xinjiang and was forced to teach Chinese history during her imprisonment.

The Chinese government has not limited its repression to these detention centers.  Beginning in 2016, Uyghur Muslim communities in the Xinjiang province have been subjected to China’s “Becoming Family” initiative (also directed by the government’s “Strike Hard” campaign).  The Chinese government mandates ‘home stays’ (lasting between five days and up to two months) within these communities, dispatching over one million cadres to closely monitor the private homesteads of the Uyghur communities.  These cadres monitor ‘problematic behavior’ such as suspected alcoholism, no alcohol consumption whatsoever (a sign the family is devout Muslim), uncleanliness, and other signs that the Uyghur are becoming ‘too Muslim’ for the secular Chinese government.  Finally, these cadres are tasked to promote ‘ethnic unity’ in the region, spouting the dangers of Islamism, pan-Turkism, and so on.  These spies of the state document every move of the Uyghur communities, reporting intelligence back to the Chinese government, who then specifically targets individuals and families suspected of dissident behavior.  It is impossible to track how many ‘dissidents’ (whether in their home communities or in the Uyghur detention centers) have been murdered by the Chinese government.  A prominent Uyghur human rights activist recently lamented,

Every single Uyghur abroad has relatives waiting for a slow death in these camps… innocent Uyghurs are now counting their final days of isolation under physical, psychological, and spiritual torture.

This begs the question: how do human rights organizations (from the United Nations to the Institute for Human Rights) classify this level of social, cultural, and civil repression?  And furthermore, how can human rights organizations utilize this classification to mobilize aid for the Uyghur Muslims?

A pair of Uyghur elders lead a donkey and boy across a Chinese marketplace
“Uyghur elders” by Todenhoff, Creative Commons

Addressing Crimes Against Humanity

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Article 7, broadly characterizes Crimes Against Humanity (CAH) as:

any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:

  1. Murder;
  2. Extermination;
  3. Enslavement;
  4. Deportation or forcible transfer of population;
  5. Imprisonment or other sever deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;
  6. Torture;
  7. Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity;
  8. Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;
  9. Enforced disappearance of persons;
  10. The crime of apartheid;
  11. Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.

In theory, the plight of the Uyghur Muslims certainly falls within this definition, as the Chinese government is violating parameters 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 11 of the Rome Statute.  Again, in theory, this means the international community has an obligation to both classify this as a CAH and prosecute both the Chinese government as a whole and individual officials directly responsible for the repression of Uyghur Muslims.  In practice, however, formally prosecuting CAH are tricky.

To prosecute CAH, a step towards retributive justice, one of two forms of jurisdiction must apply: the state must either (a) be a member to the Rome Statute / International Criminal Court (ICC); or (b) the case is referred to the ICC Prosecutor by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).  In this case, China is not a State Party to the Rome Statute, so requirement (a) is out.  Regarding requirement (b), the UNSC can indeed refer this to the ICC Prosecutor.  However, since China is a permanent member of the UNSC with full veto power, it seems extremely unlikely the Chinese government would permit a prosecution against its own state.  So what options are left for the international community to protect the Uyghur Muslims and hold their repressors to justice for this ‘unofficial’ Crime Against Humanity?

If the international community suspects a state conducts COH, accusatory states may take indirect action to punish the offender state.  Here’s one example of such indirect action: US Senators Rubio (R-FL) and Menendez (D-NJ) and US House Representatives Smith (R-NJ) and Suozzi (D-NY) are set to introduce legislation to US Congress proposing (a) the creation of a State Department role to monitor the persecution of Uyghur Muslims; and (b) the Secretary of Commerce enact sanctions to state agents in the Xinjiang province.  Indirect action, whether government-led sanctions or non-governmental tactics (e.g. ‘naming and shaming’), aims to overcome the absence of international legal precedent in circumstances such as these (Franklin, 2015).  The endgame of indirect action in circumstances such as these is to either offer an incentive for states to cease CAH or increasingly layer punishments (whether economic or otherwise) to render the CAH more trouble than it’s worth.  In this case, the ideal outcome for US Congress members is that the threat of economic sanctions would punish the Chinese, forcing the state to choose economic growth as a higher-ranking priority than repressing the Uyghur.

A final alternative to addressing CAH is that of truth and reconciliation commissions (TRC; Landsman, 1997).  TRC’s are structured around the idea of restorative justice, meaning that in the wake of CAH, damaged communities themselves work with the international community to: (a) collect ‘facts-on-the-ground’ about ongoing repression, (b) negotiate with the repressing state to end the CAH, and (c) devise solutions to repair the trauma caused by the CAH (Longmont Community Justice Partnership, 2017).  This is a human-driven approach, placing the victims themselves at the center of the process to document, cease, and heal from CAH.  In the this case, this would mean international NGO’s would connect with local Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang Province; document the short-, intermediate-, and long-term needs of the afflicted communities; and allow this joint collaboration to drive local and international efforts attempting to bring the CAH to a close.

 

an Uyghur group holds their native flag while protesting repression against the Uyghur people
“Uyghurs protesting” by Paul Keller, Creative Commons

Justice(s) for the Uyghur

Resolving the plight of the Uyghur is a highly complex issue.  Formal legal mechanisms, such as referring this case to the International Criminal Court, are constrained by the structure of international governing bodies.  Indirect action, such economic sanctions proposed by members within the US Congress, have historically had a low success rate (~34% rate of success) to compel policy change (Pape, 1997).  Finally, truth and reconciliation commissions have been criticized for their toothlessness regarding holding human rights violators responsible for their crimes (Van Zyl, 1999).  What, then, can we do?

The World Uyghur Congress (WUC), whose president Dolkun Isa is an exiled Uyghur Muslim, is taking a hybrid approach to seeking justice for the Uyghur.  The WUC’s platform combines the three previously discussed approaches (retributive justice, economic sanctions, and restorative justice), channeling their efforts into international governance, state-level policy and advocacy, and community-driven capacity building.  The WUC, steered by survivors of the conflict themselves, aims to achieve justice(s) for the Uyghur people, through a multi-lateral and multi-level approach.  While many of their efforts are aimed at high-level government officials and advocacy networks, the WUC additionally aims to engage, educate, and empower ordinary citizens (like you, the reader) to make meaningful contributions towards ending the repression of the Uyghur, ranging from advocacy training to planning peaceful protests.  The WUC (and other innovative NGOs addressing other global human rights violations) understands that it is not only the United Nations and its member states that can end human rights violations.  Ordinary citizens themselves must take up the mantle of protecting human rights when the hands of the international community are tied.  Creating justice for crimes against humanity is the responsibility of all global citizens – and here’s what you can do to help.

References

Franklin, J. C. (2015). “Human rights naming and shaming: International and domestic processes” in H. R. Friman (Ed.) The Politics of Leverage in International Relations. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Landsman, S. (1997). Alternative responses to serious human rights abuses: Of prosecution and truth commissions. Law and Contemporary Problems, 59(4), 81-92.

Longmont Community Justice Partnership (2017). Restorative Conversations and Agreement: Structured Conversations for Resolving One-on-One Conflict. https://boulderhousingcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Restorative-Conversations-and-Agreement-Meetings-for-BHC-Manual.pdf

Pape, R. A. (1997). Why economic sanctions do not work. International Security, 22(2), 90-136.

Roberts, S. R. (2009). Imagining Uyghurstan: Re-evaluating the birth of the modern Uyghur nation. Central Asian Survey, 28(4), 361-381.

Van Zyl, P. (1999). Dilemmas of transitional justice: The case of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Journal of International Affairs, 53(2), 647-667.

The Age of Human Rights?

The Institute for Human Rights at UAB is proud to take part in the 70th annual Human Rights Day today, December 10th, 2018.  Today, the United Nations led the global celebration honoring the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its subsequent influence on global affairs.  This is the last post in our series on Human Rights Day, exploring possible next steps to protect, maintain, and expand human rights across the globe.

Looking Ahead: Third Generation Rights & Beyond

Human rights are broken into three generations: (Saito, 1996)

  1. Civil & political, embodied by the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). These rights primarily protect the individual from government overreach, including the freedom of the press, right to ownership, and equality under the law.
  2. Economic, social, & cultural, embodied by the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). These rights primarily ensure equality and equity of individuals in society, including the right to work, freedom of association, and right to an education.

Third Generation human rights relate to ‘solidarity’ and broadly represent the rights of collectives, expanding human rights beyond the individual (exemplified in Generations 1 and 2; Saito, 1996). However, unlike the previous two generations, Third Generation human rights do not have a corresponding UN Covenant or Declaration to codify or clarify what these rights specifically entail. At this point in time, Third Generation human rights include the right of people to self-determination, to peace, and to the environment (Cornescu, 2009).  This last right, to the environment, is an interesting development.  This shifts the focus of human rights beyond the present circumstance and expands the purview of human rights into future generations.  If the human rights doctrine embraces this temporal expansion, what new rights may arise?

Bridge of Harbin Songhua river, illuminated at night
Bridge of Harbin Songhua river. Source: siyang xue, Creative Commons

Pushing forward the jurisdiction human into years beyond the present requires a futuristic approach to the human rights agenda, attempting to account for potential crises that may threaten the lives and livelihoods of humans of the future.  Here are a few upcoming crises requiring the attention of the human rights community:

  • Climate Change. The US Global Change Research Program recently published the “Fourth National Climate Assessment”.  This assessment urges policy-makers to take action to mitigate the effects of the global climate change crisis.  If this crisis unfolds unchecked, marginalized populations (e.g. persons dealing with the consequences of poverty, indigenous groups, and so on) will first feel the brunt of climate change, followed by economic, health, and infrastructural catastrophe.  The unwillingness to take immediate steps to curb the effects of climate change infringes of the human rights of global populations.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI). Harvard Political Philosophy Professor Dr. Mathias Risse (2018) recently published a research brief illuminating the Gordian Knot of ethics, human rights, and the creation of artificial intelligence.  Two concerns are particularly relevant to human rights: (a) the transmission of bias from human to machine (i.e. discrimination and prejudice along gender, ethnic, ableist, or ageist dimensions); and (b) the problem of value alignment (i.e. ongoing debate regarding how and which normative values should be imparted into machines).  By the same breath, Risse contends human rights advocacy networks would do well to integrate AI into their operations for two purposes: 1) to increase the efficiency and minimize human risk in humanitarian emergencies, and 2) to insert the human rights community into the AI community.  As AI technology develops, perhaps even to the point of artificial consciousness, human rights language must offer clear rules and safeguards concerning the human-AI relationship.
  • Genetic Engineering. He Jiankui Shenzhen, China, recently claimed the mantle of the first research scientist to use genetic engineering to alter embryos during fertility treatments (pending corroboration from peer reviewers).  The human right to our own genetic material has sometimes been referred to as 4th Generation human rights, and this generation declares the human genome is a crucial part of human heritage (Cornescu, 2009).  The use of genetic engineering has been considered a potential boon for eradicating diseases such as HIV/AIDS, while simultaneously harkening to Nazi sentiments regarding the creation of a perfect human race. In the coming years, the human rights community must decide, in no uncertain terms, how and if humanity itself should be subject to engineering, and how human rights fits into this process.
  • Space Colonization. (In)Famous technology personality and businessman Elon Musk claims he and his private spaceflight company SpaceX will send the first human beings to Mars at or before the year 2024, build Mars’ first city in the 2030s, and terraform Mars into an Earth-like planet throughout the 2100s.  As Musk and other billionaires seek to tame the Final Frontier, ethical concerns about the human right to and human rights in outer space must be clarified.  Most notable of these issues is that of “internality”: through lack of access and/or privilege, many humans will remain Earth-bound, with “no true escape… from the atomic bomb, terrorism, or the ecological crisis, which is already dramatically destroying our environment” (Calanchi, Farina & Barbanti, 2017, p. 215).  Stoner (2017) presents another arresting argument: space colonization is an inherently invasive act (a resurrection of the horrors of “New World” colonialism, nonetheless) and threatens to displace or destroy life on any extraterrestrial bodies that humans colonize.  Before hightailing it across outer space, perhaps our species should instead focus on the human rights crises on our home planet.
A view of outer space from the Hubble Telescope
NASA’s Hubble Telescope Finds Potential Kuiper Belt Targets for New Horizons Pluto Mission. Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Creative Commons

The Age of Human Rights?

Eighteen years ago, former UN Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan penned an editorial for Project Syndicate Magazine, lauding the fact that the UN and its member states broadly coalesced around the norm of human rights: “Above all we have committed ourselves to the idea that no individual – regardless of gender, ethnicity or race – shall have his or her human rights abused or ignored.” Cautiously optimistic from the international community’s recent outrage towards massive human rights violations and movement towards protecting vulnerable populations, Annan proclaimed that the 21st century will be the “Age of Human Rights”.  Annan’s optimism stemmed from his observation that global civil society had, in the span of 52 years, began to take seriously extrajudicial violence both within and between member states.  There is another reason to be optimistic as well.  Humans in the current day have a universal language, mechanism, and procedure to prevent global catastrophe; this was not the case leading up to the last catastrophe – World War II.

Human rights are not static concepts – they are constantly defined and redefined through developments in research, policy, and practice.  Human rights are also ideal forms – translating abstract concepts from documents such as the UDHR into the messy world of lived experience is a Herculean task.  The idea of human rights is challenged by both thought and behavior, whether the ideology of nationalism or the actions of genocidaires.  Human rights are claimed, in the sense that each one of us has a responsibility to report suspected human rights violations, to defend the notion of universal human rights from potential spoilers, and to self-advocate in instances where our rights might be diminished.  The human rights movement must also be forward-looking, anticipating future dangers well before they happen, pre-emptively codifying human rights to account for the scientific and ethical progression of human civilization.  The human rights movement is an opportunity for humanity to write its own rulebook, guiding our approach to thorny issues such as climate change, AI, genetic engineering, and space colonization.

These and more profound challenges await our species in the coming years, and an adaptive, cogent, and enforceable doctrine of human rights will prepare humanity to successfully transform these challenges into opportunities for growth for the human species.  This growth is utterly contingent upon a global commitment to the idea of human rights – that all individuals deserve a free and full life, dignified by our shared human condition and experience.  If the Age of Human Rights is indeed here, the global community should adopt an outlook of futurism in human rights: looking into the coming years, taking stock of critical issues on the horizon, and utilizing the human rights movement to brace global civil society for the coming winds of change.  It is not enough that the Age of Human Rights decries violence in all of its forms.  To future generations, the Age of Human Rights must be known for its foresight identifying, preventing, and transforming global and (perhaps) extraterrestrial challenges for the betterment of all humankind.

References

Calanchi, A., Farina, A. & Barbanti, R. (2017). An eco-critical cultural approach to Mars colonization. Forum for World Literature Studies, 9(2), 205-216.

Cornescu, A. V. (2009). The generations of human’s rights.  Days of Law, Conference Proceedings.  Masaryk University.

Risse, M. (2018). Human rights and artificial intelligence: An urgently needed agenda. Cambridge, MA: Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

Saito, N. T. (1996). Beyond civil rights: Considering “Third Generation” international human rights law in the United States. The University of Miami Inter-American Law Review, 28(2), 387-412.

Stoner, I. (2017). Humans should not colonize Mars. Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 3(3), 334-353.

#WhyIDidntReport: Reflections & Moving Forward from a Survivor of Sexual Violence

My Story

Two of my cousins sexually abused me while I was between the ages of seven and nine.  Once during an assault, their father (my uncle) walked in, watched what was happening, quietly closed the door, and walked away.  I have forgiven them all.

I believe recounting details of my abuse (whether to myself or to you, the reader) only serves two productive purposes.  First, it demonstrates my personal connection to trauma, resilience, and survivorship.  Survivors have a unique vision into the cultural narrative surrounding sexual violence, and any narrative without our explicit input is incomplete at best and patronizing at worst.  Second, recounting these details provides comradery and empowerment to other survivors.  The second point is important for several reasons.

Survivors often feel alone.  Survivors often feel disempowered.  Survivors often feel unheard and unbelieved.

For these reasons and more, many survivors, and I would argue most survivors, do not report their experience of violence.  I am using this blog post to explain #WhyIDidntReport, and why others feel unable to as well.

The author and his sister in childhood climbing a tree.
Two Sherwoods in a tree. Author’s collection.

You Never Go Back to Who You Were

I use the analogy of a watercolor painting to explain the sensation of a life disassembled, disjointed, and displaced from trauma.  Imagine that you try to recall a particular scene from your life.  The general forms are there, colored with vaguely familiar hues and shades, and you sense what the scene depicts as a whole.  But you never get the sharp edges and the clearly demarcated lines.  This is what it is like for me when I attempt to paint my childhood.

My watercolor painting has always been a glorious meeting of sun, sky, and sea – dark, deep, and turbulent waters underneath.  My watercolor painting is the ocean under the setting sun.

In my experience, “a life disassembled, disjointed, and displaced” means losing time in two major ways: Losing memory and losing relationships.  The question of memory, in particular, is an issue that plays out in courtrooms over and over again when allegations of sexual assault are leveled by a survivor.  In my experience, it is entirely possible (and probable, given the trauma and humiliation inherent to any form of sexual violence) to recall with crystal clarity some details of your attack while at the time having no recollection of other details.  Certain details will raise to the surface, such as the music that was playing in the earphones pressed against my ears, the glint of my cousin’s braces, the brown eyes of my uncle, the smell of biscuits in the oven, the taste of adrenaline.  Others remain buried on the ocean floor.

The memory of the abuse came flooding back into my consciousness during my first year of college, and at that moment, I realized just how much of my life I had lost.  I was walking home from a party with a close friend at the time, and I kept sensing an Old Enemy.  I couldn’t quite tell what this Enemy was – as I kept walking, chatting with my friend, I felt tears in my eyes.  I stopped walking and tears poured.  I remember sitting down on the sidewalk with my friend, and very suddenly, with no prompting, admitting to my friend “I was sexually abused by my cousins”.  This was the first time I ever shared my experience with another.  To this day, I have no indication why the floodgates opened at that moment in particular.

Over the course of four and a half years, I worked painstakingly to make sense of my childhood, to reinsert control over my life and my choices, and to sublimate my experience to better empathize with and transform others with similar experience.  I went to my alma mater’s counseling center, committed to integrating my trauma into my present self.  I joined a student coalition advocating for sexual assault survivors, banding with other student survivors like myself.  I interned at a nonprofit aiding survivors, finding my life’s calling in post-traumatic transformation.

Every Fall semester at my alma mater, both advocacy organizations I was involved with co-host a Shadow Event, where student survivors of sexual assault share publicly their stories to classmates, faculty, staff, and the local Newport News community.  The survivors are blocked from public view by a veil; all the audience can perceive is the survivor’s silhouette on stage and her or his voice over the speakers.  Survivors become storytellers, and in 2014, I became a storyteller.  Each of us had the opportunity to air grievance, to speak truth to power, and (most importantly) to heal in our shared spirit of survivorship and transformation.  I keep my testimony that I read the Shadow Event close.  Sometimes I’ll read back through it, reliving the power of what it means to stand in front of an audience of my closest friends, coworkers, mentors, professors, and fellow survivors.

This power resides in our very core: It is the power from speaking our Truth to both an audience and, most importantly, to ourselves.

And even now, there is much work to be done, many relationships to repair.  For several years after surviving the abuse, I obsessively held my Secret as close as possible, diving as deep inside myself as I could to avoid close personal connections.  Many times, I seethed at the abject injustice of it all.  I displaced my hurt on people I love, and there are indeed amends to be made for those dark moments.  All the while, I could only remember flashes of childhood experiences: The t-ball team, playing with my sister in our neighborhood, voraciously reading Harry Potter, learning about oceanography in 4thgrade and knowing what it was like to have an ocean inside your mind.  To this day, even after all the soul- and mind-work, the unifying thread of my childhood narrative is lost to me.  I am fine with that.  If I am certain of one thing, it is this:

When it comes to surviving trauma, you never go back to who you were.

The author with Fear 2 Freedom founder, Rosemary Trible at the author's graduation ceremony.
The author with Fear 2 Freedom founder, Rosemary Trible at the author’s graduation ceremony. Author’s collection.

#BelieveSurvivors

When an individual is traumatized at the hand of another, all meaning in the survivor’s world is shattered.  You stop believing in many things – most notably, you stop believing in yourself, often repeating unholy mantras:

‘I asked for it.’

‘I could have stopped it, but I didn’t.’

And the worst, ‘I deserved it.’

Ideas of self-concept are twisted and reformed by dark imaginings, by fixations on memories of the traumatic event, and by questions such as ‘how could anyone do this to me?’  Many of us stop believing we are worth the discomfort felt by another when we tell them our story – we clutch our stories tight because we will, inevitably, end up on the receiving end of pitying looks and on the receiving end of heavy (and also very awkward) silences.  The final tragic reality is that many survivors, especially women survivors, are simply not believed when they recount their abuse.  When they share their testimony, they are met with suspicion and outright hostility.

Take, for example, the situation playing out between Ford and Kavanaugh.  Last week, Dr. Christine B. Ford recounted her story of sexual assault at the hands of Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.  Dr. Ford’s testimony and the tenacity of other survivors of sexual assault convinced enough members of the Judiciary Committee to commit to an FBI investigation regarding any potential incidents of sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh.

As both a survivor of sexual assault and as a human rights researcher committed to national and international standards related to due process, the Ford-Kavanaugh situation has been a nightmare.  Many on the right believe Dr. Ford & her story serve solely as political pawns, used and abused by the Democratic Party.  Many on the left believe Kavanaugh is a de facto rapist, aided and abetted by a Republican Party fully cognizant of Kavanaugh’s crimes.  I cannot speak to what happened between Ford and Kavanaugh, so I will not indulge in speculation.  Here’s what I can speak to:

99.4% rapists will never see a jail cell, 94.3% will never be arrested, and 69% will never have their violence reported to police.

Arguments have also been made that the men should fear being falsely accused of sexual violence (this says nothing of female perpetrators, such as one of my abusers).  Intentional false allegations do indeed comprise 2 – 7% of cases brought to law enforcement.  Compare that statistic with the others I listed prior.

It is very apparent to me, and to many other survivors as well, both the American judiciary and culture-at-large have failed their collective tasks of acknowledging, prosecuting, and preventing this form of violence.  I also look to the vitriol Dr. Ford and her family are experiencing as evidence of these failures – failures completely visibly across the entire American political drama, irrespective of Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence.  I have wondered (for many years now, not just within the present circumstance) what structural barriers maintain this status quo, discouraging survivors from speaking out, inspiring savagery against survivors.  Here are some of my theories:

And from my joint perspective as a survivor and social scientist, here are the opportunities we all share in order to move forward the national conversation about sexual violence:

  • Normalize conversations about sexual behavior, starting within the family.
  • If you find yourself questioning the credibility of any survivor, ask yourself why.
  • Empower survivors to speak for themselves, not for others to speak on their behalf.
  • Mandate consent laws and sex education are taught in public schools nationwide.
  • Publicize who are mandatory reporters and local / state / national / international mental health services (now that I am teaching, I put this information front and center in my syllabus).
  • Familiarize yourself with verifiable statistics of sexual violence – it is much more common than any of us would like to believe.

For fellow survivors reading this post, know that there are many mental health services you can utilize (for other guy survivors like me, visit 1in6 and consider reading my friend’s story about why he didn’t report).  As the Ford-Kavanaugh story gains more traction, many of us will be threatened by feelings of being re-traumatized.  Here’s one website that can help (a special thank you to my colleague in UAB Public Health for her empathy and for this resource!).  Dr. Ford’s testimony is a reminder for us to always show courage, to speak truth to power, and to wear your mantle of survivorship with pride.  Know that you are never alone. And know that I believe you.

I’ll leave you all with the words of Dr. Judith Herman, psychiatrist and author of Trauma and Recovery:

“Those who stand with the victim will inevitably have to face the perpetrator’s unmasked fury.  For many of us, there can be no greater honor.”

A watercolor painting of the ocean at sunset.
Reflections. Pixshark, Creative Commons.

The Voting Rights Act Today

by Pamela Zuber

What Is the Voting Rights Act and Its Legacy?

August 6, 2018 marked the fifty-third anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson signed this legislation in the hopes that it would end discriminatory practices that made it difficult for African Americans and other people to vote.

As idealistic as it was, the legislation did not stop such difficulties. Like other laws, the Voting Rights Act has produced mixed results.

But, given recent developments, it appears that the legislation has done more good than harm. Enforcing its measures has supported the voting efforts of many people, while suppressing its measures has had the opposite effect.

America-themed converse sneakers depict the word "VOTE"
Source: Theresa Thompson, Creative Commons

What Is the History Behind the Voting Rights Act?

Ratified in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution stated that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

But, for decades, authorities still found ways to disenfranchise African Americans, immigrants, and the poor. They issued literacy tests under the pretense that only the educated should allowed to vote. They levied poll taxes that charged people fees to vote. U.S. women, of course, faced blatant discrimination, too, since they did not have the right to vote until 1920.

Protests against disenfranchisement and other violations of human and civil rights, especially in the 1960s, shone spotlights on these injustices. This publicity sometimes came at great costs to the participants.

Protesters sometimes needed medical care due to the brutal treatment they received at the hands of police or civilian vigilantes. Vicious beatings, attacks from police dogs, blasts from fire hoses, and death threats were common tactics used against the protesters.

Some attacks were even worse. Some people lynched or shot protesters who questioned the status quo.

James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner traveled to Mississippi in June, 1964 to advocate for educational and voting opportunities for African Americans. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) murdered them. The KKK members did not face criminal prosecution for the crime at the time.

Decades later, in 2005, a local newspaper investigation produced evidence that helped lead to the conviction of a local Klansman. But, even then, justice was muted, since the Klansman’s conviction was on charges of manslaughter, not murder.

People thus used both discriminatory legislation and outright illegal intimidation to prevent African Americans from voting. The Voting Rights Act aimed to end these tactics.

What Did the Voting Rights Act Do?

Partly, at least for a time. The Voting Rights Act significantly increased the number of African American voters in some areas. In Mississippi, six percent of African Americans voted in 1964. Just five years later, sixty-nine percent of African Americans voted in Mississippi.

Because of the Voting Rights Act, states and local governments are no longer able to issue tests that restrict some people from voting. It is no longer legal for authorities to intimidate people physically, mentally, or financially in order to prevent them from participating in government affairs.

To enforce the act, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act created a coverage formula to determine if jurisdictions complied with the act. As part of this formula, the federal government monitored jurisdictions that had discriminated against voters in the past.

The formula required that jurisdictions

  • Suspend literary tests or other tests used to determine whether people were eligible to vote.
  • Submit themselves to review by the U.S. attorney general or Washington DC’s district court if the jurisdictions made voting-related changes.
  • Agree to be under the review of federal examiners who would prepare lists of eligible voters.
  • Work with federal observers in jurisdictions with federal examiners.
  • Allow people who have attended foreign-language elementary schools to vote.
  • Provide information and voting opportunities for non-English speakers.

Many of the stipulations in the coverage formula required federal oversight if jurisdictions wanted to change election procedures or laws, a process known as preclearance. Preclearance was the law of the land for decades, but it was not without its criticism.

The criticism prompted many challenges and lawsuits, which culminated in the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder. This decision invalidated the coverage formula and said that the U.S. Congress could create new coverage formulas, but Congress has not done so.

What Do Voting Rights Look Like Today?

Less oversight has eroded the Voting Rights Act and voters’ rights in general. Despite this legislation and the gains it brought, people are finding an increasing number of barriers to voting.

A growing number of jurisdictions have added requirements for voting or are asking voters to consider such requirements:

  • Many states require people to possess specific forms of identification, such as driver’s licenses, in order to vote. Many older or disabled adults do not have such identification, so it can make it difficult for them to register to vote.
  • Alabama closed thirty-one offices that issued driver’s licenses in 2015 even though the state had strict laws that required voters to show identification, such as driver’s licenses, in order to vote. Many of the offices were located in areas with high African American populations and were reopened due to criticism.
  • North Carolina residents will vote in November 2018 to determine if the state should add an amendment to the state constitution stating that voters will need photo identification to vote in future elections. A federal court struck down a similar North Carolina law in 2016.
  • New Hampshire passed a 2018 law that required people to be permanent full-time residents if they wanted to vote in the state.
  • Wisconsin residents at a 2018 hearing testified that changes in their voting districts had spread Democratic Party voters across such a large geographic area that their votes were rendered less powerful. Critics also claim that the state has excessively strict voter ID laws that disproportionately affect Democratic Party and African American voters.

Wisconsin residents voted for Republican Party candidate Donald Trump over Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump’s narrow victory in Wisconsin helped him win the Electoral College and the presidency.

If Wisconsin’s Democratic Party voters were in fact suppressed, voter suppression could have decided the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Voter suppression thus could have wide-ranging consequences.

After being shot, a black American man sprawls on the ground
Source: Cliff, Creative Commons

Why Are Voting Rights Important?

As the case of Wisconsin indicates, changing the voting districts can muffle citizens’ voices – and those are people who are allowed to register and cast votes. Voter suppression laws also make it difficult for people to even register to vote in the first place.

But, voting is a fundamental tool of citizenship. It enables people to express their opinions through their ballots. In the words of Ajanet Rountree, voting invites people to join the “political and social narrative.”

If people cannot vote, they cannot join this discussion. If disabled people lack certain types of photo IDs in states that require such IDs, or if they are not able to arrange transportation to the polling places, they will be unable vote or even to register to vote.

The disabled people might miss opportunities to vote for candidates or issues that have direct bearing on their lives. For example, they might miss the opportunity to vote for a candidate who consistently votes in favor of expanded Medicaid coverage.

The suppressed voters might rely on Medicaid to pay for their considerable medical expenses. But, if they do not have adequate Medicaid coverage, they could experience problems with their physical and mental health. This lack of Medicaid coverage could even affect the people’s finances and living situations if their rent/mortgage money has to be reallocated to pay for their rising medical costs. Not being able to vote could thus directly impact people in several ways.

Proponents of strict ID laws say that the requirements can help prevent voter fraud. But, observers note that voter fraud appears to be more common among people who use absentee ballots, people who are predominantly white. ID requirements do not typically address absentee ballots.

Voter identification laws disproportionately affect nonwhite voters. Writing in Newsweek, Mirren Gidda noted that “the turnout gaps between white and ethnic minority voters are far higher in states where people must show ID during or after voting.”

Others commentators echo these findings. “[R]esearchers found that strict ID laws doubled the turnout gap between whites and Latinos in the general elections, and almost doubled the white-black turnout gap in primary elections,” wrote Vann R. Newkirk II in The Atlantic.

Because of this disparity, organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have worked to challenge discriminatory laws and enforce the provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The NAACP sued Alabama after the closure of many driver’s license offices and was active in the Shelby County v. Holder case.

Organizations such as Let America Vote are hoping to invite more people to join the civic discussion. The organization includes information about registering to vote and voter guides to different elections. It supports candidates in different states who have worked to uphold voter rights.

The NAACP and Let America Vote join other organizations that promote enfranchisement. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) website includes a wealth of information about its advocacy and other efforts to promote voting rights.

Voter suppression currently exists. But, if we utilize the provisions of the Voting Rights Act and other efforts that support voting, we can work to restore and enforce this fundamental right of democracy.

About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and editor interested in current events, history, health, business, and a wide variety of other topics.

The Responsibility to Protect, Revisited: Gun Ownership in the United States

Tennessee, Tennessee, Ain’t No Place I’d Rather Be

I grew up in rural Northeastern Tennessee, situated 30 minutes from both the Virginia and North Carolina state borders. In my hometown of Kingsport, itself a part of the Tri-Cities, I inherited many traditional Southern cultural mannerisms and beliefs as a growing kid. True to form, I can whip up banana pudding and biscuits and gravy, I sometimes use the word “ain’t”, and I will always hold the door open for others. Southern culture can be a simple one; try sitting on your front porch for the entire weekend – something we in Tennessee consider high entertainment. Tennessee made me a fan of great music (I’m an avid Bonnaroovian), a taste for delicious foods (ever tried Pal’s Sudden Service?), and a reverence of nature. My family, tried-and-true Southern kinsfolk, embody many Southern ideals. Most of these traditions, such as saying, “yes ma’am” and “no sir” are benign. These mannerisms just are – part of the charm of hailing from the South. Tradition is quintessentially Southern.

A photo of the author's family farm in Tennessee.
“Tennessee.” Photo by: Nicholas R. Sherwood

Part of a traditional Southern rearing is a respect for and knowledge of firearms. Almost all members of my extended family know how to operate these weapons using proper gun safety measures. I recall many afternoons as a child refining my marksmanship. This often involved setting up targets (nothing fancy, soda cans would do) across long pastures in the various farms my family owns. All the cousins and our parents would gather ‘round, grilling ribs, searing vegetables, and baking buttery breads. We swam in muddy ponds and hightailed across our properties in four-wheelers. All the while, the children, teenagers, and adults would take turns practice shooting a variety of revolvers, magnums, bolt-action rifles, and muzzleloaders.

This is a Sherwood tradition- we all know how to responsibly fire a weapon.

In my family, gun ownership is a serious endeavor. I vividly remember my uncle and my dad explaining to my sister and me that guns can and do often kill other human beings. To own and operate a gun is to have access to an awesome power, and we only used this power under the strict supervision of properly-trained adults. Firing a gun required two things: every person on the property was safely accounted for and our parents knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that we were mature enough to grapple with the destructive power in our still-growing hands. Today, I am thankful for being desensitized to firearms. I can watch someone shooting a gun and know if they have good or poor form, how to properly handle the weapon, and have the maturity to wield it. Most of the Sherwoods have taken at least one, if not several, Tennessee Hunter’s Safety Courses. This too was crucial to our firearm education. Additionally, many of us have Conceal & Carry permits. This is not to say the Sherwood clan only buys guns just to keep them; we have several avid hunters in our ranks. For us, hunting is a sacred tradition with specific rules we abide by. I was taught never to overhunt in an area – disrupting animal populations would wreck local ecosystems. Thankfully for us, East Tennessee has an overpopulation of deer, meaning local hunters can bag and tag a regulated amount of these animals without destroying the Tennessee natural ecology. In fact, by hunting excess deer, wild apex predators are kept in check and the vegetation deer overconsume is conserved. Descending from a long line of Cherokee Native Americans, instilled in every Sherwood is an understanding that we, like our ancestors, have a responsibility to care for the land around us. Hunting is part of that responsibility.

A Portrait of the Responsible Gun Owner

With this upbringing in mind, when acts of mass gun violence rip through the social fabric of America, I am thrust into a dissonant space. How do I reconcile my upbringing of responsible gun ownership with the dire need to regulate these weapons – for the safety of all Americans? Parsing through these issues, the Institute for Human Rights is currently running a series on gun control in response to the horrific massacres of school-children throughout the United States. It is my intention to show that responsible gun owners do exist, and they too must be a part of this conversation. Moving towards reconciliation of these two issues, public safety and private liberty, I have these questions:

  • What is responsible gun ownership?
  • Is it a regulatory process that educates the general population on gun safety protocols or an ethos of responsibility? Is it both?
  • Does gun control involve federal law, perhaps barring ownership from individuals with moderate to severe psychopathologies, histories of criminality, or a lack of maturity to handle weapons?
  • Is gun control a responsibility to protect the gun owner from his or her own mistakes in handling the weapon, or is gun control a responsibility to protect society at large from individuals with the sole intent to do as much damage in the least amount of time?
  • How do we reconcile the responsibility to protect the most defenseless members of society with the responsibility to protect freedom of thought and behavior?
  • What institutions bar authentic and transformative debates from occurring in the American public sphere and within global civil society at large?

What is undeniable is this: no productive and sustainable progress in gun control will take place without the inclusion of responsible gun owners within the conversation. And all gun owners must accept that governmental limitations on gun ownership is not an existential threat to one’s personal liberty. This limitation is a recognition that an individual’s participation in society requires a widening of responsibility to protect not only one’s immediate family and friends but also the protection of all members in a society. What we are facing here is a tension between individual liberty and the need for a cosmopolitan protection of all members within a society. To resolve this tension, we must first acknowledge that a solution is indeed possible, and that we already have the necessary tools to move towards successful resolution.

Towards this end, we must first define an oft-nebulous construct: responsible gun ownership. I propose a “responsible gun owner” possesses the following qualities:

  1. a working knowledge of local, regional, and national laws that dictate the possession and usage of any and all types of firearms,
  2. a vetting by official state authorities (such as the local police and / or military personnel) on said knowledge of gun possession and usage,
  3. is of sound mental health (yes, this advocates for universal mental health background checks upon purchase of any firearm),
  4. constant usage of a locked gun safe that prevents children and other unqualified persons from accessing firearms,
  5. has undergone a rigorous criminal background check, with a waiting period before firearms can be purchased, requiring an utter absence of violent and harassment-based crimes, such as stalking and intimate partner violence,
  6. an acceptance that gun ownership will always be a contested issue that must be resolved through constant dialogue between all invested parties with concessions on all sides,
  7. a commitment to solution-focused resolution rather than a problem-focused resistance to negotiating gun ownership.

This last point is especially salient. Any meaningful conversation on gun control must arise from a negotiation between second amendment advocates and gun control advocates.

Too often (on both sides of the spectrum) the prevailing narrative of this discourse is a blanket denial of the rights, responsibilities, and needs of all involved parties.

Specific institutions promote this denial and antagonism, thereby promoting a particularly insidious form of structural violence and resistance to civil dialogue. I speak specifically of the National Rifle Association.

A man photographs the National Rifle Association logo.
“NRA” by Bart, Creative Commons.

The National Rifle Association’s Culpability

In the aftermath of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the National Rifle Association (NRA) participated in a town hall on gun policy in America. In attendance were survivors from the high school, Senator Marco Rubio, local politicians, and the NRA’s spokeswoman, Dana Loesch. Ms. Loesch, a one-time contributor for Breitbart News and Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, relied heavily on her familiar stumping strategy: invoking the maternal instinct as an emotional appeal to advocate for gun ownership. She and other members of the NRA assert a broad dissemination of guns throughout American society (their opinion of who deserves such weaponry is inconsistent, to say the least) is one of the most promising methods to protect children and other marginalized groups in America from the “people who are crazy” who possess guns. Essentially, the NRA argues more guns in society increase the chances that “good guys with guns” will deter or kill the “bad guys with guns”. This is, of course, tautological.

Flooding the market with guns would increase the likelihood that these “crazy” people get ahold of a firearm. After all, the NRA has made no serious attempt to advocate for mental health reform in response to calls for tightened gun control. The ‘mental health’ argument has long been a smokescreen of the NRA, a method of distraction to bait the normally health-promoting left a fight on mental health care reform. This bait-and-switch technique is a political gambit used by an inherently political institution, and it does a disservice to responsible gun owners throughout the United States.

Furthermore, it duplicitously reduces individuals with mental health issues to be political pawns; this reduction is utterly dehumanizing and offers no solution to the massive structural issues facing access to mental health care in America.

These theatrics add to the antagonism on both sides of the issue. Of course, a critical question remains regarding why such controversy exists: who stands to benefit from these bitter feuds? The answer is overwhelmingly politicians.

Millions of dollars of contributions from the NRA have fundamentally altered how politicians are able to fundraise, which politicians receive adequate funding to mount serious campaigns, and (this is most concerning) when or if a given politician will advocate for common-sense, widely-supported gun control policies in the face of unspeakable tragedy. This puppeteering is, by its very nature, anti-democratic and antithetical of American ideals. This ability to openly buy politicians, including Presidents of the United States, is an existential threat to American democracy. Add in the suspected ties to Russia and the political jockeying on display during CNN’s Town Hall, and you have a political institution that effectively and openly operates as a site of political nepotism and deception. Topping it all, the National Rifle Association has been linked to white supremacy ideology and it’s spokeswoman, Ms. Loesch, accused of encouraging violence as an acceptable form of response for critiquing the NRA. This dimension of intentional structural violence transforms the NRA from an institution not only engaging in political bribery, but also one that reflects tendencies of homegrown terrorism.

In my opinion and personal experience as a responsibly-trained gun user, the National Rifle Association functions a terrorist organization stoking fear and tribalism, thereby driving responsible gun owners away from the debate table on this issue.

Support for the NRA is a moral failure to denounce election-buying, white nationalism, and foreign meddling in the American political system. This support is an abject failure to protect American society from treacherous forces undermining a functional society, and this failure is far beneath the maturity and discipline typically shouldered by responsible gun owners throughout their mastery of weapons capable of both indiscriminately murdering and responsibly nourishing.

Conclusion

As I have stated, responsible gun owners do exist. These individuals see the inherent danger and power in firearms and acknowledge that controlling this power requires specialized education, careful observation, and highly specific locations where guns may be appropriately used. Responsible gun owners must hold other gun owners responsible, whether leading by example or calling out inappropriate practices as they occur. This responsibility extends not only to other gun owners, but to the American public as well. The conversation on gun control requires an intentional suspension of disbelief from both camps in order to find a middle ground in the issue.

I assert responsible gun owners have the moral responsibility to inclusively and adroitly address the legitimate calls for disarmament in the face of such abject horrors and losses exemplified by the recent school shootings throughout America. Without genuine participation in this exchange, gun owners lose the opportunity to educate the public on successful encounters between liberty and responsibility, and they may well lose their firearms as a result. An unwillingness to come to the discussion table with open ears and clear heads will result in the marginalization of responsible gun owners unless they are willing to make strident concessions in the ongoing debate of gun control. Similarly, gun control advocates must accept that responsible gun owners do exist, and these individuals have a constitutional right to bear arms.

The only way the mayhem will stop, the only way lives can be saved, is if both sides accept the only way towards a meaningful and equitable solution for all involved parties will require an intentional partnership to confront and transform the meaningless violence that currently terrorizes the safety of many Americans – most notably schoolchildren.

The first step in this partnership must be a resounding denunciation and deconstruction of the practices and ideologies of the National Rifle Association. You are not a responsible gun owner if you support the NRA in its current form. Only once the NRA has been disbanded, its latent ideology of political radicalism reconciled, can authentic encounters between gun control advocates and responsible gun owners reshape the horrifying trends of gun violence currently annihilating the safety and wellbeing of schoolchildren and marginalized groups throughout the Unites States.

An American Peacemaker

In honor of the 50thAnniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Institute for Human Rights is publishing various outlooks on the life and contributions of Dr. King. This is the second entry in the series.

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God.” Matthew 5:9

photo of a dove midflight
peacemaker by Mohamed Mula, Creative Commons

The Peacemaker Defined

When confronted by a system permitting injustice, denying universal human rights, and thwarting peace for marginalized groups, many of us are deeply unsettled. To fully understand the destruction humans have wrought on one another is to simultaneously accept one’s own capacity to perpetuate evil in the world. Humans are capable of peace and war, justice and violence. A critical question arises here: what compels an individual to choose peace in the face of adversity? What inspires an individual to rise above violence, utilizing an ethos of peace as both a means and an end? In short, how can we become peacemakers?

Informed from many interviews of indigenous persons weaving peace from conflict, Marc Gopin offers the following personal traits that embody the peacemaker:

Responsibility; courage; independence; evangelical passion

A desire to inquire

A strong sense of ethnic roots that is combined paradoxically with universal love

Patience

Dignity

An embrace of love and the way of the heart as the key to peace

Emotional honesty

A consistent desire to seek out shared values across the boundaries of groups

A desire for leadership through social network creation

Long-term engagement with adversaries and faith in the value of ongoing debate and slow and steady influence

In Bridges Across an Impossible Divide, Gopin (2012) is quick to add that any and all of us can be peacemakers – if we so choose. It boils down to choice: choosing how to move through conflict, choosing to leave the world better than we found it.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – The Peacemaker

There is no doubt Dr. King ushered a new wholeness to American culture. His contributions to American society are legendary: leading the American Civil Rights Movement, raising collective American consciousness to address structural discrimination, and developing innovative strategies of nonviolent social protest still used throughout the globe. He taught a generation of civil and human rights footsoldiers, he constructed new theological language grounded in human equality, and he personally transformed the lives of those around him. He was a person of immense spiritual power– calling on his training as a man of the cloth to inform his philosophy and theology demanding racial equality in the United States. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is among the most prominent and revered peacemakers the world has ever seen.

Per Gopin’s definition, peacemaking describes not only works but also the personality of an individual. Being a peacemaker is not just directing policy change or charismatic leadership, but an ethos of resilient gentleness, and formidable commitment to the transformation of conflict to better the human experience. It is an understanding that peacemaking is not a vocation – it is a divine calling. Today, we remember that his faith and deeds literally transformed the soul of America. Dr. King was a true American peacemaker.

References

Gopin, M. (2012). Bridges across an impossible divide: The inner lives of Arab and Jewish peacemakers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.