Discounting the Narrative of The Model Minority Myth

In the past year, there has been a drastic rise in hate crimes against Asians across the globe. This was fueled by inflammatory language and anti-Asian rhetoric surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent hate crimes and acts of discrimination against people of Asian descent are not isolated to the past year. Anti-Asian language and rhetoric is beginning to garner widespread media attention in light of the Atlanta shootings during which six Asian women were killed. It’s incredibly sad and concerning that it took this instance to gain media attention for the injustices that have been plaguing Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. Asian American communities face a unique reality regarding racism and racial violence that’s not often seen in other racialized communities. On one hand, Asians are praised and encouraged to be the perfect minority, and on the other they are still placed in the racial hierarchy that seeks to oppress them via harmful stereotypes and nationalist ideals.

While some of the hate crimes are due to overt racist attitudes, others are due covert cultural stereotypes about Asian Americans that are reinforced in the media and pop culture. These stereotypes present Asians as submissive and hardworking. “People don’t think that Asians will fight back” so they are more easily targeted by others who don’t fear the consequences. As a result, the elders in the Asian community have had to bear this burden of violence. Asian American stereotypes are a direct result of this community being portrayed as the model minority.

What Is the Model Minority Myth?

Japanese Internment Campus During World War II. Sources: Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive

The model minority term was coined by William Petersen in 1966, a white male who argued that Japanese Americans could not experience racism because they were capitalistically and socially performing better than other groups of color. This is incredibly ironic because of the Japanese concentration camps that were built by the US government during World War II.  This model minority myth stereotypes Asians as studious, successful, hardworking, and smart. It is this population that despite being a minority has challenged the odds and accomplished the “American Dream.” Even though this stereotype has seemingly positive overtones, it is especially damaging for Asian Americans and other minorities. The model minority myth pits minorities against each other, while also simultaneous ignoring the systemic racism that plagues Asian Americans. It also takes a huge toll on the mental health of Asian populations, because of this burden to succeed and compete against other minorities in a distinctly white dominated country. Asian Americans that don’t fit this model minority mold, who are of lower socioeconomic status, and work in low-wage industries are more susceptible to experiencing hate crimes and racial violence. Asian women encounter even more difficult odds. Asian women are fetishized, sexualized, and marginalized. Asian women are also in an extremely precarious position and vulnerable to facing violence.

Source: Doonsbury Comic Strips

Gregg Orton, national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, says that there is a narrative that says we are alright, that we don’t have problems and so we should not complain. Rewriting the challenge of this narrative speaks for itself, especially since it emphasizes the type of work that needs to be done to combat this notion and these harmful stereotypes. While not every act of discrimination or crime that takes places against Asian Americans is a hate crime or racially motivated, these repetitive and familiar acts of violence and complacency are certainly something to address.

The model minority myth contributes to the oppression Olympics and damages the unified front that people of color are attempting to uphold against individual and systemic acts of racism. This myth has been weaponized against the Black community and against Asian forms of resistance. Illustrating Asian Americans as the epitome of the “American Dream” damages the lives of Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians, and Southeast Asian Americans. Their needs, struggles, and harms they face are made invisible. This does not mean that Asian Americans do not benefit from the oppressive nature of the model minority narrative. This is not an excuse to discount the racial violence and discrimination that the AAPI community faces every day. To move beyond this myth and fight it, there needs to be solidarity between AAPI groups and other marginalized communities. We have already seen this in action in light of the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer and especially this past month.

What can you do to help?

  • Donate to these organizations.

Stop AAPI Hate, Asian Americans, Advancing Justice, Welcome to Chinatown, Compassion in Oakland, NextSharkGold HouseApex for Youth, Asian Mental Health CollectiveDear Asian Youth, Asian American Collective, Hate Is A Virus, AAPI Community Fund, Red Canary, AAPI Women Lead, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – ATL, Asian Feminist Collective, Asian Pacific Environmental Network

  • Educate yourself on the racialized history of Asian Americans. There is a hefty history of racism against Asian Americans in the U.S.
  • Deconstruct both the overt and covert stereotypes that enforce the model minority model.

Why Feminism Needs To Be An Anti-Racist Movement

March 8th was International Women’s Day. When I woke up that morning and started scrolling through Instagram, I saw all my friends and family recognizing the burdens that women face and celebrating their strength and existence. Then, I saw a post about Meghan Markle, a Black woman who is also the Duchess of Sussex, and the very racist comments that have surfaced after her interview with Oprah. A week later, on March 13, was the one-year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s murder. Breonna Taylor’s family still hasn’t received justice for her murder. The sexist and racist language surrounding Taylor’s death was despicable. Last week in a mass shooting, six Asian American women were killed directly related to the anti-Asian rhetoric that’s been happening since the emergence of COVID-19 and the racism that’s been normalized towards Asian communities. The irony of the situation seemed inescapable in light of the celebratory month. Women are supposed to be uplifting other women, especially Black women. Malcolm X said that, “The most unprotected person in America is the Black Woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman,” and the past year has shown us that. Just like it’s shown us that it’s all women of color whose needs will be ignored and whose bodies will be violated. As a fellow woman of color and a feminist, I know I exist at the intersection of multiple systems of oppression: white supremacy and patriarchy. I believe that we can’t be feminist, unless we are also antiracist.

Source: Informed Images (flickr.com)

Feminist Theory

Mainstream feminist theory has been criticized for centering the needs of white women and largely ignoring the needs of women of color, or assuming that their needs are the same. This has led to White women speaking on behalf of all women, as if it’s a situation of one size fits all. It’s not. Similar to how the reproductive justice movement became based on the needs of middle-class white women, the idea of “sisterhood” within the feminist movement also catered to similar populations. Due to this, it’s not surprising that even though we have, Black, Indigenous, Mexican, and Asian feminists, their platforms and voices are often ignored and suppressed in preference to white women. Even when gender and race oppression are acknowledged and discussed, information pertaining to gender oppression is only highlighted from the perspective of white women. Racial oppression and systems of resistance are most often told from the perspective of men of color, further negating the very specific experiences of women of color.

Black women and women of color are not only told that they belong to lesser genders, but that they are of lesser races. The experiences of white women who have experienced oppression is unlike the experiences of women of color. There is no parallel, because the intersectionality of their identities compound on each other to equate a sum that is greater than oppression from any individual source. These experiences of discrimination are attributed to race, gender, class, or all three. Not only are women of color experiencing this unique combination, but they are also aware that they are being marginalized from multiple avenues; avenues that don’t oppress white women or other men of color.

Source: Yahoo Images (brewminate.com). Portrait of Maria Stewart-the first Black feminist abolitionist.

The anti-racism movement has been far more socio-politically active than the feminist movement. Black women were key figures during the abolitionist movement, fighting for womanhood denied to them as enslaved persons. While Black men were in the media spotlight, it was Black women who were running the show from behind the scenes of the civil rights era from raising funds, community and grassroots organizing, and mobilizing followers. As such they were key activists for antiracism, allowing them to secure their roles in the gender inequality movement. But the work of these Black women in the civil rights movement has been ignored and forgotten, in leu of men who often held sexist beliefs on gender norms and equality.

Feminism as an Antiracist Movement

Feminism needs to be an antiracist movement, because there is a need for a political movement that highlights the intersection of race and gender oppression. Yes, white women have been mistreated. Yes, they have faced oppression, but it’s important to recognize that for women of color, this discrimination and mistreatment is doubled and quadrupled. If we can free Black women, dismantle the patriarchy, and white supremacy, all women will be free. Only when we address white supremacy and systems of violence that benefit the white man, can we truly start to change the other related systems of power and oppression.

How can you help?

  • Continue to raise awareness and fight for Breonna Taylor.
  • Listen to the experiences of Black women and women of color around you. Come from a place of empathy. White women need to decenter and rid of themselves of the white savior complex. Their activism needs to happen because it’s the right thing to do.
  • Address the need for intersectionality when talking about race and feminism.

The Death Penalty is Inhumane

One of the best things that my 12th grade high school teacher encouraged me to do was to read and watch Just Mercy, a book written by Bryan Stevenson and a film directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Both the film and book allowed me to greater understand the importance of confronting injustice, while also standing up for those wrongly convicted.

An image with the words "Just Mercy" and "Bryan Stevenson"

In the United States, about 43% of all executions have involved people of color, 55% currently awaiting the death penalty, all while only accounting for 27% of the general population. When comparing defendants, one fact to note is that “as of October 2002, 12 people have been executed where the defendant was white and the murder victim black, compared with 178 black defendants executed for murders with white victims.” According to the ACLU, “a system racial bias in the application of the death penalty exists at both the state and federal level.”

But what exactly is the death penalty? What are the different forms of capital punishment and arguments for and against them?

What exactly is capital punishment?

Britannica defines capital punishment as the “execution of an offender sentenced to death after conviction by a court of law of a criminal offense,” meaning that this type of punishment would be reserved for the most dangerous of criminals.

The death penalty has been present in societies for hundreds of centuries, dating all the way back to before the establishment of Hammurabi’s Code in 18th century BC. Hammurabi’s Code laid the foundation of the death penalty for 25 different crimes; placing emphasis on theft between two groups of people. Hammurabi’s Code also established punishment as equal to the crime committed, as known from historical references as “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” These types of punishments were often cruel and included crucifixion, burial alive, impalement, and others.

Notable forms of Capital Punishment throughout History and Today

The Guillotine

The Guillotine, one of the older methods of execution, was introduced in France in 1792. This device fixes the head between two logs with a heavily weighted knife suspended a couple of feet in the air. This method of execution was introduced to make the process of execution “by means of a machine,” making it “as painless as possible.”

Notable figures executed by means of the guillotine as King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette for crimes against the French people.An image of a guillotine, with the blade and a basket where the head is supposed to be kept.

Hanging

Carried out in countries in Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East, hanging is defined as suspending someone in the air as a form of execution. Death either occurs through decapitation or through strangulation, depending on the length of the rope compared to the weight of the prisoner.

Lethal Injection

Lethal Injection consists of an anesthetic alongside chemicals used to paralyze the prisoner and stop the heart. This form of punishment exists in China and Vietnam.

Surprisingly, the United States also uses the lethal injection, with the most recent execution taking place on September 24th, 2020. “Christopher Vialva was sentenced to death for the 1999 murders of Todd and Stacie Bagley.” Vialva’s execution was the 1,526th in the United States since 1976, 10th in the federal system, and the 1,346th person executed by means of lethal injection.

Although the injection is designed to kill ‘quickly’ and ‘smoothly,’ inexperience on the part of prison staff has flawed the execution process. One case in particular is that of Dennis McGuire. Reports show that after the injection was administered to Dennis McGuire, he gasped and convulsed for 10 minutes; much longer than the time that previous injections have taken to execute someone, before dying.

Electrocution

Execution by electrocution occurs when a prisoner is strapped to an electric char with a “metal skullcap-shaped electrode” attached to their scalp or forehead. Following these actions, the prisoner receives a jolt of electricity up to 2000 volts for up t o30 seconds, until the prisoner is dead.

Electrocution is a method of execution carried out in the United States, with the first electrocution taking place at Auburn Prison in New York against someone who was convicted of murdering “with an axe.”

Why the Continuation of the Death Penalty Creates a Gray Area

Today, “more than 70% of the world’s countries have abolished capital punishment.” Countries today that still have the death penalty range from countries with large populations under authoritarian rule, with the United States being the outlier as the only democracy with it in place.

An image of the world map highlighting countries that have abolished and retained the death penalty as of 2006.
Death Penalty Laws Over The World 2006.

According to the Embassy of the United States of America, capital punishment still exists due to the inability of the federal government to dictate laws to the states. Although the United States has been one of the foremost leaders in reforming capital punishment, other countries have had an easier time in abolishing it by “national governments imposing top-down reform because they decided the death penalty was no longer necessary or legitimate.” And since the Constitution allocates criminal law to the states, only they can repeal their own capital punishment laws. The Supreme Court is the only national-level body capable of declaring capital punishment unconstitutional.

Around the world, many consider implementing the death penalty a violation of human rights, especially those that require states to recognize the right to life, as shown through Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Life is a Human Right.” Although intended to curb violent crimes and atrocities committed by criminals, the loss of life through the death penalty violates “the right of life and the right to live free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” which the death penalty unfortunately promotes.

Although many international organizations and countries have abolished the death penalty, like many countries of the Global North save the United States, a case can arise where the death penalty is justified, shown through Bangladesh’s approval of the death penalty for rape. With a viral video showing a group of men sexually assaulting a woman, Bangladesh’s cabinet quickly approved “to incorporate the death penalty for all of the four types of rape defined under Bangladeshi law.” Though detracting from the real problem, that rapists are normal people and not animals, the passage of the death penalty seems just, since there has been a violent outrage at the lack of enforcement on sexual violence in this part of the world.

Moral arguments for the death penalty put quite simply, is the concept of retribution, where the killing of one person justifies the death of the killer. However, opponents of this notion would counteract that point with the fact that issuing capital punishment detracts from the moral message it conveys, alongside the fact that it is fundamentally inhumane.

Despite these arguments, the inhumane action that is the death penalty cannot go unchecked. With the death of Dennis McGuire, for instance, these processes are not clean and fraught with mistakes leading to the disgusting and horrific death of inmates.

“The death penalty has no place in the 21st century” – António Guterres

Overall, the “death penalty is not a useful instrument for combating crime.” Abolishing the death penalty in the United States can allow other countries to ensure the right to life for all people, while also ensuring that the absolute worst of punishments cannot be enforced differently based on a person’s status, color, race, or underlying distinctions.

“The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.” – Amnesty International

Anti-Asian Racism in America

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic which originated in China, xenophobic attitudes towards Asian Americans have spiked and resulted in a communal fear among Asian Americans. The STOP AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Hate reporting center formed in San Francisco on March 19, 2020, in hopes of keeping a record for hate crimes towards Asian Americans. Since last spring, Stop AAPI Hate has reported more than 2,800 incidents, ranging from “verbal abuse and workplace discrimination to storefront vandalism and physical violence,” several of which have been fueled by xenophobic sentiment. The sentiment seeks to scapegoat Asian Americans for coronavirus, and the sentiment has only propelled further by former President Donald Trump’s use of racist terms to describe the virus. 

Some examples of this anti-Asian sentiment include violence towards elderly members of the AAPI community. In San Francisco, 84-year old Vicha Ratanapakdee died after getting shoved to the ground. A 91-year old in Oakland, CA, was brutally pushed from behind. In San Jose, a 64-year old woman was robbed in the middle of the afternoon. These attacks have had devastating impacts, as Cynthia Choi, a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, said in a press call. She elaborated that the AAPI community is “fearful of being in public alone, simply going for a walk and living our daily lives.” Activists have been trying to draw attention to these instances of violence and are putting forth their best effort in pressuring local governments to provide more financial support for victims. The activists also have emphasized the necessity for communities of color to stand in solidarity and focus on cross-racial education and healing in order to “raise awareness about the discrimination that different groups experience.” 

protests
Asians are not a virus, the hatred is. Source: Yahoo Images.

Another horrific incident occurred in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 16, 2021 which resulted in the deaths of six Asian women and two others who were shot in their workspace by Robert Aaron Long. Long claims he was not racially motivated, but he did target Asian-owned spas. The shooting has not only shaken up the Georgia Asian community but the entire nation, and the event has received immense backlash from all communities. It is unfortunate that a shooting is bringing attention to this ongoing issue. 

Asian American lawmakers are also taking a stance to respond to the anti-Asian racism. They want Congress to pass the No Hate Act, which boosts local government funding for tracking hate incidents, along with a meeting with the U.S. Department of Justice and a hearing about recent attacks. These efforts are led by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, chaired by Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), and has gained support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and lawmakers in the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses. Previously passed in the House of Representatives as part of the Heroes Act, the No Hate Act aims to establish regional hotlines for people to report hate crimes, provide resources for local governments to investigate the reported crimes, and focus on the rehabilitation of offenders through community service. The lawmakers in favor of this act claim that AAPI hatred and bigotry is not a new concept in America, quoting the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which framed the Asian American population as “forever foreigners” in the United States. Having such a xenophobic attitude dating from so long ago is something that must be dug deeper into for it to be eradicated from the American mindset. 

aapi hate
Ongoing protests by all members of the AAPI community have commenced from the time the violence began. Source: Yahoo Images.

The severe disrespect and violence that members of the AAPI community are enduring for a pandemic that has affected the entire global population is unfair and inappropriate. In any community, the elderly are valued as wise people who have enlightening advice to pass onto their successors. The act of even pushing someone who is a senior citizen is a very lowly act that should not go unobserved or unchallenged, especially by the federal government. And the shooting of 8 people, 6 of which are Asian, is not as coincidental as Robert Aaron Long may claim. Xenophobia is a very damaging concept that is unfortunately part of American history, but that does not mean it should be repeated, especially in a time of dire need for unity against a global pandemic. 

Another Battle for Bodily Autonomy in Trans Youth

On February 10, 2021 the Alabama Senate Health Committee voted to criminalize transgender medicaltreatment for minors. With an 11-2 vote, the committee approved Senate Bill 10 (SB-10), a bill that will “outlaw puberty blocking medications and gender-affirming care for minors.” On March 3, the Alabama Senate passed this legislation, and it is currently awaiting Governor Kay Ivey’s approval. SB-10 empowers the legal system to prosecute clinicians and pharmacists with felony charges if they prescribe medication or provide treatment to aid in the transitional processes of minors. Bill sponsor Senator Shay Shellnutt (R-AL) claims that “minors are too young to be making this decision.” The Senator has also admitted that he’s never interacted with a trans teen before submitting the bill. Opponents of the SB-10 refute Shellnutt’s claim by acknowledging this decision is between the medical care provider, the patient, and the patient guardians. As such, SB-10 infringes on the private rights of parents to care for their children with necessary and proper interventions. Shellnut has mentioned that hormonal treatment and other transgender interventions cause long term issues and that a child is not mature enough to be making such a permanent decision. Shellnut’s claims are false; the effects of hormonal drugs that are puberty blockers are reversible. Also, when evaluating long term effects of gender reassignment surgeries, doctors prefer to wait until the patient is at least 18 years old before they perform the surgery.

A person holding a sign with a metaphor describing gender.
Source: www.mindfulword.org

Doctors must take the Hippocratic Oath which defines their ethical conduct and moral reasoning. There are two main tenets of the Oath: “benefitting the ill and protecting patients against personal and social harm and injustice.” Not only does SB-10 force doctors to dishonor the Hippocratic Oath, but it is also medically harmful to the patient pursuing care and prevents them from confiding in their medical care team. Dr. Marsha Raulerson says it will “take away child’s confidence in trusting doctors with their thoughts and to talk candidly.”

Healthcare providers are only one pillar of the support system for patients wishing to transition. So, when healthcare providers are unable to provide care to these young individuals, it can harm their mental and physical wellbeing and contribute to gender dysphoria. Adolescent and young adult years are incredibly formative. It’s in these years that young people thrive and when they are in need of a lot of support and care. When their support systems and adequate healthcare is taken away “adolescents can feel alone, stigmatized, and undervalued”. Rejection, discrimination, and stigma during these formative years can put young adults at a higher risk of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. The aforementioned mental health disorders can lead to the usage of addictive substances like drugs and/or alcohol, and suicidal ideation. These factors contribute to significant health disparities within the LBGTQ+ community. It’s vital the care they receive is given without stigma and affirms the patient’s sexuality and gender identity, but this care cannot be given with government intervention that holds traces of transphobia.

Protestors gathering against the transgender military ban legislation.
Source: www.britishherald.com

Gender is a very dynamic concept, and there is no binary. It is up to the individual to choose their identity. Gender reassignment treatments and procedures are one way to reaffirm and respect an individual’s choice. LGBTQ+ youth deserve to know that they are respected and that they deserve quality healthcare and treatment. Healthcare providers should not be prevented from fulfilling their responsibilities. They should be able to provide quality care and treatment for their patients. If they can’t, they should be able to refer the patient to a doctor who can provide adequate healthcare. This is not the first time SB-10 has been passed to the full Alabama Senate. It was passed all the way up to the Governor in 2020 to be signed into action and is only back on the table due to COVID-19 complications. Advocacy is an important aspect of healthcare, and providers should be willing to advocate the most for marginalized communities. It is important to lift barriers to care for these groups, instead of continuing to make healthcare inaccessible.

A separate companion bill (HB-391) is currently in the Alabama House. This bill would restrict transgender students from participating in school athletics with the gender they identify with. Lawmakers that support the bill claim that it protects fairness for female and “keeps them from having to compete against transgender athletes who were born male.” The biggest difference to make right now is to call Alabama Senate representatives and tell them the harms these bills will cause to LGBTQ+ youth and to the healthcare providers that try to help them.

The ‘Kisaan’ Protest: A Turning Point for India’s Democracy

Depiction of Kisaan
A kisaan in his khet, or field. Source: Yahoo Images.

You may have heard or seen news about the ongoing farmers’ protest in India right now. This protest was sparked by three bills that were adopted by the Indian government in September 2020. These three bills primarily place the livelihood of these farmers from the state of Punjab at the mercy of corporations. The privatization of the agricultural economy will surely benefit the Indian government, but the farmers will suffer greatly since corporations will purchase their crops at a much lower rate, leading to generational debt which has already led to farmer suicide in India. To prevent the exploitation of their livelihood, the kisaans (“farmers”) have set out on a protest, the highlight of which has been their march from Punjab to Delhi, India’s capital. The Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has not reciprocated the farmers’ concerns with any form of sympathy. Rather, senior leaders of the Indian government have called the protestors “anti-nationalist” and “goons.” Such a reaction from the government is not unusual for the Sikh farmers who have been the target of persecution by the Indian government multiple times in the past.

Historical Context

In the 1970s and 1980s, Punjabi Sikhs held similar views in regards to the Indian government’s support for agriculture, an industry which has always been essential to the Indian economy and still is with 60% of the Indian population reliant upon farming for its sustenance. Unfortunately, the Indian government reacted the same way it is in 2021 – by labeling the protestors anti-nationalist. Additionally, the government launched a series of egregious human rights abuses consisting of attacks on the Punjabi population in the 1980s, attacking the Golden Temple of Amritsar in June of 1984, launching a state-sponsored pogrom in November of 1984, and extra-judicial killings in the following decade. What is worse is that the Indian government has never acknowledged nor apologized for these events, giving the people of Punjab a reason to have grievances towards the government.

But the state of Punjab is not the only population that has been the prey of India’s ongoing human rights abuses. The rise of right-wing authoritarianism in India coincides with the ascension of Narendra Modi to the role of Prime Minister; Modi himself took part in genocidal violence in 2002 while presiding over Gujrat’s anti-Muslim pogroms as chief minister of the state. Though the current protests are pogroms, the Indian government has acted in an undemocratic manner with its press censorship, journalist detention , and violent crackdowns on the non-violent protestors.

Protest
Protestors took over the Indian capital of Delhi, demanding their rights. Source: Yahoo Images.

What do the farmers want?

Farmer unions and their representatives have asked that the three farm acts passed by Parliament be repealed; they will not settle for anything less. The government proposed an 18 month delay of the laws to give the farmers time to adjust, which was also rejected. Between October 14, 2020 and January 22, 2021, eleven inconclusive rounds of talks have taken place between the government and union representatives. The farmers even suggested overthrowing the government on February 3, 2021 if the laws are not repealed.

The reasoning for the farmers’ escalating anger is two-fold: one, the human rights abuses the Indian government is inflicting on the non-violent protestors, including tear gas; and two, the failure of the Indian government and leaders to cooperate with the unions. To peacefully protest a set of acts is well within the rights of a people belonging to a democratic nation, but it is not the right of the government to respond to peace with violence and neglect the concerns being voiced by its people. That is not what a democracy is.

The Negative Impact of Mass Incarceration on Human Rights in the United States

Mass incarceration is a uniquely American problem that impacts the human rights of American citizens, particularly those who come from communities of color. Beginning with the introduction of more punitive approaches to dealing with crime in the 1970’s, America’s prison population has grown at an unprecedented rate. Prisoners in the United States are denied basic human dignity on a daily basis, and the rising costs of providing for a massive prison population has highlighted racial disparities, driven money away from valuable social spending, and is completely unsustainable for the 21st century.

Gives a visual of Prisons
SOURCE : Unsplash

The History and Development of Mass Incarceration

While the incarceration rates in the United States remained relatively stable in the United States until about the mid-1970s, they began to increase at an almost exponential rate with the introduction of “tough on crime” language by local and national politicians across the nation. Despite crime rates falling drastically since the early 1990s, this trend has continued into the 21st century and incarceration rates in America remain at historic highs, with continued growth for nearly four decades . According to research done by the Sentencing Project, “the combined prison and jail population of about 330,000 in 1972 has mushroomed to 2.2 million today”. The beginning of the movement to end this unprecedented rate of mass incarceration can be, in many ways, traced back to the financial crisis of 2008, where it was recognized by many politicians that the current fiscal costs of America’s prison system were unsustainable. While the modern push to end mass incarceration is a more recent development, measures to keep low-level offenders out of prison have existed in the United States since the nineteenth century, when the probation system began to focus on reform rather than punishment. Although reform has always been a stated goal of prison systems in the United States, the adoption of many “tough on crime” measures in the latter half of the 20th century, particularly mandatory sentencing and three strikes laws, have forced judges to mandate harsher sentences for crimes.

Racial Disparities in Mass Incarceration

The current rate of mass incarceration in the United States is 5.6 times higher for Black people and 2.6 times higher for Hispanic people when compared to the incarceration rate of whites in the United States. While Congress never officially declared a “War on Crime”, the language of war has been used to terrorize neighborhoods, most frequently neighborhoods of color, leading to many calling the current attitude of criminal justice in the United States a “New Jim Crow”. As communities of color in the United States continue to face systemic racism, one of the most glaring ways inequity comes to mind is the incarceration rates of people of color. According to research done on the history of incarcerations, for Black people in particular, the “tough on crime” initiatives adopted in the 1970s only led to an “exponential increase” in the rate of Black people being given prison time. This is a glaring failure of the American criminal justice system in addressing racial inequality, and has only harmed Black communities as the longer prison sentences given today dramatically reduce the human capital available in Black communities.

Mass Incarceration’s Drain on Social Spending

Mass incarceration continues to have a large impact on criminal reform and reentry programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism rates at a far greater effect than prison alone. With the increase of longer prison sentences being handed out, often due to mandatory sentencing laws, the American prison population is much older than it has ever been. Not only does an older prison population cost much more in healthcare spending as healthcare problems are heightened by both age and time spent in prison, but many of these prisoners have “aged out” of their high-crime years and are statistically unlikely to reoffend. Between 1993 and 2013 alone, the fifty-five and older prison population in state prisons increased by “four hundred percent”. This enormous increase in costs over the last half century has directly impacted public safety in a negative way by taking funding away from effective reform programs and prison alternatives such as drug treatment programs, public schooling, and community policing.

place for overview
Promising reforms, such as the Biden administration’s decision to end private prison contracts, have brought hope to activists interested in prison reform. SOURCE : Pexels

Promising Reforms

While the problem of mass incarceration has painted an extremely bleak picture of the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in America, there have been a few promising reforms by responsible parties that have begun to given those serving time in the United States the human dignity they deserve. For example, an initiative by the Obama administration to reduce time spent for drug charges “lowered the average prison term from twelve years to ten years”. The United States Sentencing Commission’s tight grip on personal choice by judges in individual cases can also be lightened by ending mandatory sentencing standards and three-strikes laws, and reforms made in several states showed almost no increase in recidivism rates despite more prisoners being released. Reform is very slow due to the interest of many politicians to have a continued “tough on crime” stance, despite empirical data showing the failures of these policies to improve public safety and their extremely high burden on the American taxpayers. Despite increasing calls to end mass incarceration in America, the popular talking point of going slow in reform measures has led to millions in prison, with many being denied basic rights every single day, despite posing a low risk to society. Every year, countless thousands of hours of time are stolen from vulnerable communities due to long and inhumane sentencing for even low-level drug charges, decreasing the economic and social productivity in the United States. Though many are privileged enough to never face the American prison system, we all suffer the consequences of mass incarceration in the United States, with no proven results for its effectiveness.

In 2021, the Biden Administration is starting to tackle mass incarceration. One of President Biden’s first executive orders was a welcome reform to the Department of Justice, phasing out the use of private prisons. While activists know much more is needed to be done, it is a refreshing step in the right direction.

 

COVID-19 in ICE Detention Facilities

Children advocating for
Children ask for their parents’ safety while they are in ICE facilities during COVID-19. Source: Yahoo Images

On a visit to a private United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Texas, a reporter met with Philip, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo, to speak about the conditions of ICE facilities amid the coronavirus pandemic. Philip recalled his experience, telling the reporter that ICE does not “pay attention to the rules,” and “agents do not wear masks and do not respect quarantine.” Furthermore, he shared that the agents claim “health isn’t ICE’s responsibility.”

How severe is the risk of COVID-19 in the ICE facilities?

After hearing about the first warnings of COVID-19, Chris Beyrer, MD, Desmond M. Tutu Professor of Public Health and Human Rights, highlighted the potential for catastrophic outbreaks of the virus in America’s jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers. His background in epidemiology and research on infectious diseases in prisons gave him the credibility he needed to make such a grave claim. Additionally, in Wutan, China, where one of the first big outbreaks of COVID-19 was, prisons and jails had all the red flags that worsened the spread of COVID – indoor facilities, crowded populations, and hygiene challenges. This was more alarming to Breyer since he was aware of America’s densely populated facilities and their lack of preparedness in handling a pandemic.

Breyer was approached by a group of lawyers working with five older Latina women in the El Paso ICE facility; the women, in addition to their age, had at least one preexisting condition, such as diabetes and hypertension, putting them at a greater risk of becoming severally ill if they were to contract COVID. The lawyers sent Breyer detailed plans of the facility and housing arrangements, and Breyer’s team concluded that ICE could not protect the five women; they would be at high risk if they were exposed. The case reached a federal court where the judge ordered the release of all five women, who fortunately had family in the U.S., so they could go home. The judge’s ruling cited the irrefutable scientific evidence and explicitly said that ICE had failed to prove that they could protect the women from exposure. This precedent itself sets the standard for any other case that emerges during COVID in relation to ICE and the safety of a detention facility amid a pandemic.

Police in ICE facilities ignore COVID-19 guidelines. Source: Yahoo Images.

What else has ICE been doing amid a pandemic?

The sad part is that this unsanitary environment was present prior to the pandemic. In a 2019 inspection of ICE facilities by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the report says the DHS found “egregious violations”: moldy bathrooms, food safety issues, lack of hygiene items, and inadequate medical care. If these problems existed pre-pandemic, there is no guarantee that ICE has improved their filthy detentions’ environments. Though the ICE website has posted that it is abiding by CDC guidelines, there is no solid proof of such changes. Instead, ICE’s ongoing deportation flights have not ceased. Since January, over 450 deportation flights to fifteen countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have taken place. Eleven of these fifteen countries have confirmed that deportees returned with COVID-19. Since March, ICE has arranged 180 flights from detention centers in hotspot states – Texas, Arizona, California, and Florida – to the Northern Triangle and Mexico. Cases across the region in March jumped from few to thousands, which has been worsened by the deportations of COVID-positive immigrants.

A Call to Action

Amy Zeidan, an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at Emory University, called for ICE to comply with mandatory CDC guidelines and release as many people as possible from immigrant detention. It has also been suggested to do three things in the meantime to fix the underlying structural issues that have worsened the spread of COVID in detention facilities: “increase COVID-19 screening and mass testing; improve access to medical care outside of ICE facilities for COVID-19 positive detainees; [and] implement systematic investigation into ICE facilities in violation of other guidelines.”

Homeland security is something that everyone cares about. But if America needs to cage immigrants in unsanitary, filthy conditions where they are at a greater risk of dying, then the DHS and ICE need to rethink their stance and their treatment of people who have immigrated to the United States. This pandemic affects everyone, but it can be mitigated with the correct precautions. People like Philip who witness such malnourishment within ICE facilities do not deserve to be treated with such cruelty.

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One perspective into an ICE detention facility. Source: Yahoo Images.

Reproductive Justice: Voices Not Just Choices

What Is Reproductive Justice?

Indigenous women, women of color, and trans people have long fought for the right to make decisions about their bodies. Coined in 1994, the term reproductive justice is defined as the “human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”

One way to differentiate reproductive justice from reproductive rights is that the latter is the “legal right to access health care services such as abortion and birth control”. Initially, spokespeople of this women’s rights movement often included educated wealthy, middle class White women. This left marginalized communities and minority women who did not have easy access to their rights with minimized opportunities to voice their problems and experiences. This begs the question of what good are these rights, if they aren’t accessible. Built upon the United Nations human rights framework, reproductive justice is an intersectionality issue where reproductive rights and social justice are combined so the voices of LGBTQ+ people, marginalized women, and minority communities are uplifted.

Abortion as a Voice, Not a Choice

Choice comes from a place of privilege. The chance of deciding reproductive options is more easily accessible to middle class White women, while these same options are typically unavailable or restricted for poor, low-income women of color. These are the same marginalized women who historically bore the burden of unethical research in reproductive medicine from issues regarding the study of gynecology, to sterilization, and everything in between. For example, James Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology, conducted medical procedures on enslaved Black women, which is unethical in more ways than one. No consent was given. A patient that has no knowledge of what is going on or what is being done to them cannot give consent. As an enslaved person, the patient was not seen as a human being, but rather as property, and therefore no consent was necessary. The medical procedure was purely experimental, and Sims’ likely had poor knowledge of what he was doing which made his actions torturous. Women like the patients Sims practiced on, women of color, women who were and are oppressed and marginalized, women with disabilities, and people of the LGBTQ+ community continue to be exploited, and it is important that their voices are heard now more than ever.

Source: Robert Thom, circa 1952. From the collection of Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan. Sims’ not only purchased Black women to conduct his inhumane experiments on, but he did so on the belief that Black women could not feel pain.

Often there are misguided notions that reproductive justice is just about abortion, and while access to abortions is a major component of the movement, the movement does not end there. Reproductive justice also goes on to include access to proper sex education, inclusive to all genders and sexualities, affordable contraception, and access to safe and healthy abortions. It’s not enough for abortion to be legalized. “Access is key,” meaning that the cost of the medical procedure is bearable. Medical expenses include travel to a medical provider, paid time off from work, prescription costs, dietary expenses, relocation, etc. all of which can cause difficulty in accessing care. As something that women of color, women with low incomes, and the LGBTQ+ community have brought to attention, reproductive justice is an umbrella that goes beyond the pro-choice versus pro-life debates. It calls into light that factors such as race and class in society affect each woman and LGBTQ+ persons differently. This means not every person has the choice to choose or not choose a pregnancy due to lack of access to services, stigma, or historic oppression, which is where the pro-voice movement intercedes.

The pro-voice movement is meant to “replace judgement with conversation” from both pro-choice and pro-life advocates. Abortion is an incredible emotionally and morally draining topic to converse on, and it’s a decision that should be void of politics and instead filled with empathy and compassion so an individual can make the healthiest choice and live their healthiest life. It is important to validate a person’s lived experiences and to acknowledge that they made the best decision they felt like they could with the resources available to them at the time.

Stigma Around Reproductive Health

There is lack of access to the topic of reproductive health due to incomprehensive sexual education in school systems. Access to this information, access to proper medical care, access to contraception and abortion “is a political, human rights and reproductive justice issue.” Some educational systems fail to mention how to obtain contraceptive methods, how to use them, and which methods are more suited for an individual. This lack of information and stigma around sexual education does not reduce the incidence of unsafe and “unprotected sex or rates of abortion.” In fact, lack of education around contraception and restrictive abortion practices leads to more unsafe abortions globally due to financial burdens as well as social and cultural stigma.

Source: Maria Nunes. An LGBTQ+ Pride event takes place in the Caribbean.

Another issue is heteronormativity which is the trend in sex education focusing “on straight, cisgender young people, but ignores LGBTQ+ youth.” These conservative views that do not cater to a whole population of young adults exacerbates this stigma around sexual and reproductive health. This leads to people feeling like they cannot ask questions due to fear of social repercussions or that their sexuality is abnormal. Not being provided with “information to address their health needs, leaves the LGBTQ+ youth at risk for sexual violence and unprotected sex,” making them more vulnerable to various sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and mental health disorders. As important as it is it to address reproductive justice and reproductive health as a women’s issue, it’s even more important to know that LGBTQ+ people “can get pregnant, use birth control, have abortions, carry pregnancies, and become parents.” Part of fighting for and providing reproductive justice involves activism against controlling reproductive voices, and often controlling sexualities and gender expressions are synonymous with gatekeeping those voices.

Providing access to sexual and reproductive healthcare to LGBTQ+ people is one way to ensure that all communities are able to have information, resources, and the power to make their own decisions about their bodies, genders, sexualities, families, and lives. Access to reproductive healthcare can come in the form of gender affirming care and treatment for transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming individuals. Having free access to reproductive education is a foundational piece within the reproductive justice movement. Talking about the framework around sex and reproductive justice is so much more than sex. It involves intersectionality and considerations of reproductive health regarding pregnancy, abortions, racial and class division and discriminations, maternal mortality rates, and environmental conditions. It’s about the dichotomies between oppression and liberation, individuality and collectivity, and most importantly choices and voices.

Source: Terry Moon for News and Letters. An individual in Chicago attends a protest in support for Planned Parenthood.

What Are Three Things I Can Do?

  1. Understand that it’s not about being pro-choice or pro-life. Understanding abortion is about validating people’s stories and experiences. If you haven’t experienced abortion or don’t know of someone who has, the first step is to come from a place of compassion and empathy.
  2. Know that reproductive justice goes beyond being a women’s issue. The same resources and information given to women need to be disseminated throughout the LGBTQ+ community.
  3. Research organizations such as SisterSong, Planned Parenthood, and URGE to start your activism and make your impact.

Poland’s Rise in Populism

In 2015, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) became the majority in the Polish Parliament alongside the presidency for the first time since 2007. The Law and Justice Party is a right-winged populist party that has faced ongoing controversy and scandals since its formation in 2001. The Law and Justice Party began as a center-right party with an emphasis on Christianity.  The party began forming coalitions with far-right parties in 2007, which positioned its ideology closer towards nationalism and populism. During the last few years support dwindled for the PiS; however, their messages calling for family unity and Christian values have appealed to deeply religious sectors of the country. A country that is trending towards nationalism and populism risks violating the rights of those that the nation deems as “other”. By establishing a national identity, particularly around religion, they are also establishing those that do not belong to the national identity. This carries the risk of isolating and ostracizing individuals.

Protestors march for LGBTQ rights in Warsaw (Source: Creative Commons)

The Close Relationship Between Religion and Government

The Polish identity is tied very closely to Catholic beliefs and practices. Around 87% of Polish people  identify as Roman Catholic. In Poland Catholic values are taught in public schools, over ⅓ of Polish citizens attend church regularly, and the Polish government has an intense working relationship with the Catholic Church. Public ceremonies are often held with the blessings of priests, and church officials often act as a lobby group having access to large amounts of public funding. Priests in the countryside of Poland often campaign for members of the more conservative party who support legislation that aligns with the ideals of the Catholic Church. This close relationship is criticized because of the archaic and often divisive legislation that the Church tends to support. The Catholic Church’s alignment with the government will inevitably ostracize those who are not Catholic as well as those who live their life in a way that the Catholic Church condemns. The issue is at a governmental level, this allows for discriminatory policy to be passed.

 President Duda and the 2020 Elections

The support of the Catholic Church was paramount in the Law and Justice Party candidate winning the 2020 Presidential election. President Duda, the PiS candidate, narrowly won re-election after a very divisive campaign against the progressive Mayor of Warsaw.  President Duda exploited negative rhetoric citing LGBT ideology as being more destructive than Communism. Poland’s history of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) occupation accompanied with this rhetoric led to the success of President Duda in the 2020 Presidential election. PiS members and Catholic Clergymen asserted LGBT values as being in opposition to family values and sought to associate the LGBT community with pedophilia. President Duda’s narrow win ignited mass unrest spreading throughout Polish cities as progressives viewed his win as a step back for LGBT rights in Eastern Europe.

President Duda of Poland meets with President Trump of the United States (Source: Creative Commons)

LGBTQ Free Zones

Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric did not begin in the 2020 Polish elections. Over 100 towns and regions around Poland have declared themselves LGBTQ Free Zones since 2018. These declarations are largely symbolic; however, they have further divided the country and suppressed the LGBT community. LGBTQ free resolutions have been pushed by the Catholic Church and politicians across Poland. Protests against these zones have resulted in mass countermarches of right-wing Poles that have ended in violence. The LGBTQ community has continued to face oppression from their government and these zones just serve as a way to further disenfranchise them.

“Stop Financing LGBT+” Sign hanging outside a building in Warsaw (Source: Creative Commons)

Access to Abortion

Along with the anti-LGBT legislation, Poland’s Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of strict regulation of abortion. Poland previously had regulations only allowing abortion access to victims of rape, incest, preservation of the mother’s life, and if the baby has fetal defects. Legal battles erupted in 2019 by the Law and Justice Party to ban abortions in the event of fetal defect. Judges nominated by PiS members ruled in favor of a ban of all abortions due to fetal defects, which account for approximately 98% of all Polish abortions. The decision led to outcry across Poland inspiring protests in almost every major city.

 What is the future of Poland?

The future of Poland is unknown, and it is clear the Polish government has become increasingly populist and nationalistic. Public figures are using rhetoric that divides the general population from “western elites” and activists within their country that seek to strive towards more encompassing human rights. Polish activists are fearful of future legislation that will further violate human rights. International human rights activists, the United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU) have all attempted to pressure Parliament to pass legislation showing outward support of the LGBTQ community. Polish officials responded claiming LGBTQ people have equal rights in the country and organizations should instead focus energy on Christian discrimination taking place internationally. As part of the international community, we can demonstrate our support for the people of Poland by staying up to date on what is happening there. It is also important to create dialogue around the issues in Poland which can include everything from social media posts to organizing events that bring awareness to the situation.