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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fires and COVID-19 Race Through Lesvos Migrant Camp

We are asking for the European community to help. Why are they not listening to us? Where are the human rights? We took refuge in the European Union but where are they? There are no toilets, no showers, no water. Nothing. Not any security or safety. We die here every day.”

Devastation in Moria

On the night of September 8th, 2020, fires raged through Europe’s largest migrant camp in Moria, Lesvos in Greece. It is home to more than 13,000 people which is 6x its capacity. Recently, Moria has caused deep political divisions and unrest in Europe over Mediterranean migration. Moria serves a direct transit point for hundreds of thousands of people seeking refuge from Afghanistan and Syria with the European Union. After Europe started closing its borders and putting a quota on the number of immigrants 4 years ago, life in Moria began to be plagued by mental and physical health issues and desperation. What was originally a temporary camp, became the home of deplorable conditions for people who were running from another deplorable environment.

On the night of the fires, thousands of Moria residents were displaced and are currently being refused entry into Europe, being refused basic rights to shelter and safety, being refused access to proper shelter and sanitation, and being refused their human rights. Since fleeing the fires, the refugees have resorted to sleeping on fields and the sides of roads. Thousands of migrants are now demanding more permanent housing because their situation is so out of the norm and they just want to feel safe in one environment, but their cries for help are continuing to go unheard. The Greek government has taken positive steps to build a more permanent migrant camp, but this leaves little to no hope for refugees seeking a better life outside of Lesvos.

This picture shows the a part of the residential area of the Moria camp where proper housing is severely limited and lacking along with our necessities. Source: Marianna Karakoukali

While accounts of how the fires started are currently being investigated the Greek government is claiming to have identified the culprits. Rumors of how the fires started are illustrative of ethnic and political tensions on Lesvos. The refugee migrants are tired of their poor living circumstances and the local population is upset with lack of regional, national, and international support for managing the influx of migrants and refugees on the island. While a second civil rights movement is happening not only in the United States, but all around the world, racial and ethnic tensions are high. Many refugees feel the European Union is turning its back on them. The European Union is becoming less tolerant for migrants and refugees, when it had once promised to help.

So how is COVID-19 affecting Moria?

Earlier this year, Greece went into lockdown and put travel restrictions on tourists coming in and residents going out. At the beginning of September, there was a small outbreak among the residents at the Moria camp, and human rights advocates are concerned that the Greek government is using this outbreak as an opportunity to further constrain the lives and freedoms of the migrants. The Greek minister for migration; Mitarchi, released a statement saying that the outbreak suggests need for a more “closed and controlled” environment for the migrants. This is odd considering that Moria has experienced far fewer cases than the rest of Greece, but the restrictions placed over the lives in Moria were much higher in comparison. In the Spring, the United Nations was so overwhelmed and concerned with livelihood and the living conditions at Moria that they called to expedite the migration process and related paperwork. So along with the day to day living conditions at Moria, COVID-19 and readily available access to healthcare is making life harder for the migrants. The fires may have been set in retaliation against the newer COVID-19 restrictions by the migrants or they might’ve been set by the local residents who fear the spread of COVID from the camp.

What is going on now?

In the meantime, while the Greek government is talking to French and Italian national leaders, riot police have been deployed to both the site where fires have been set, and also to the new refugee camp that is being set up to shelter those abandoned in Moria. This new site is at Kara Tepe where local media has identified helicopters that have been transporting tents and other necessities for the residents. In the fires, refugee documentation and belongings have been lost and burned, so it is still being determined how accessible the new site at Kara Tepe will be. Many refugees are now saying that they will not go back to another refugee camp where proper living conditions are not guaranteed, but the Greek government is saying that it will “not be blackmailed.”

Refugees sleep on side of the road following the fires, while they await further government housing and instructions. Source: Tasnim News Agency

What can you do to help?

The Return of Alt-Right Conservatism in Spain

A woman waves a Spanish flag and a Vox party flag at a rally.
A woman waves a Spanish flag and a Vox party flag at a rally. Source: Vox España, Creative Commons.

I studied abroad in Alicante, Spain during the spring semester of 2019. I loved my experience, especially the experience I recieved by choosing to live with a host family. I was able to really immerse myself in Spanish culture through my host family and in turn they eagerly showed me their city and their traditions. One of the things my host mother said when she was walking me around Alicante for the first time has stuck with me, even since I left Spain. She pointed out the many Spanish flags that were hanging on the balconies and outside of the windows of the myriad apartment buildings around the city. Unless there is a soccer game, she said, Spaniards hang the Spanish flag outside to show their solidarity with the rising nationalistic ideals in Spanish politics. I looked around that day and was surprised at the number of flags that I saw.

Nationalism was the primary basis of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship that lasted from 1939 until his death in 1975. Franco’s ideologies have been compared to Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy. He led a civil war that lasted three years, dramatically reduced the rights of women to almost nothing, and is considered responsible for killing close to 150,000 people. When Franco died, many Spaniards hoped that extreme Spanish nationalism died with him. Spain has been one of the few countries that has not seen a conservative resurgence until very recently. The rise of the political party Vox has led to a return in ultra-right, conservative, nationalism.

Vox is a far-right nationalist party in Spain that was founded in 2013 by politicians who did not believe that the right wing People’s Party was conservative enough. Vox is considered socially conservative as it works to restrict abortion and economically liberal as it champions policies that reduce taxes. The party’s chief goals include removing the current system of regional powers in favor of one government and one parliament, eliminating the Constitutional Court and the Senate, and introducing Spanish language examinations at the end of each school cycle. At the forefront of Vox’s goals are the needs of Spaniards as party supporters chant the phrase “Spain first.”  The party and its leader Santiago Abascal have been compared to the United States President, Donald Trump, and his administration. Ultimately, Vox has gained power by taking a stoic stance against the Catalan separation movement, a movement where the wealthy region of Catalonia attempts to secede from the country of Spain, solidifying the party’s nationalistic views.

 

Santiago Abascal speaks at a rally.
Santiago Abascal speaks at a rally.
Source: Vox España, Creative Commons.

A large concern about the rise of Vox surrounds the controversial policies that they support. One of the ways that Spaniards have compared Vox and Franco is with their treatment of women and their stance on women rights. Spain recently passed a gender violence law in hopes of reducing the number of women killed or harmed by domestic abuse within the country. The first Spanish political party to openly challenge the law, Vox advocates for repealing the gender violence law as they deem it discriminatory against men. Instead, the party is campaigning for replacing the gender violence law with a Family Violence law that will, as they say, protect all groups. At the same time, the leaders want to create a Family Ministry and use the law to protect the “natural family.” It is interesting because Vox routinely advocates for the family group as a whole, as shown by their support for longer maternity leave and their support for mothers, but when asked about their stance on the divorce or separation of a woman and a man, the party has always argued in favor of the man. Vox aims to eliminate what they consider to be radical feminist groups and prosecute any rape or sexual harassment claims that could be deemed phony. This is problematic because a political party that citizens trust publicly decreeing a claim to be phony without any evidence against the claim delegitimizes the woman making the claim as well as any claims made after. The delegitimization removes any power the woman may have as well as the power of any women who follow her. Vox claims that a “genocide” of men is taking place in the modern era and their policy choices have reflected their stance on women’s rights.

Immigration has been a touchy subject for many countries around the world in the past couple of years.  Vox has taken a very strict perspective on immigration which has gained the party a lot of supporters from the conservative right. However, these strict policy choices could have some serious ramifications on many people in the country should the policies be enacted. Vox advocates for immigration quotas for a majority of countries around the world, referencing back to their “Spain First” mentality. The nationalities that would be exempted from these quotas would be those that also speak Spanish and have good cultural ties to Spain. Vox is also in favor of deporting all undocumented immigrants, no matter their home country situations or the circumstances that caused them to move to Spain illegally. At the same time, Vox wants to prosecute non-profit groups that aid illegal immigrants with anything from providing legal representation to finding shelter for the immigrants. Finally, the party states that removing state aid for illegal immigrants would be a priority.

Vox has proven to be a party that wants Spain to return to an entirely Catholic country. They champion Catholic values and the Catholic church while threatening to remove the presence of other religions within the country. This is especially concerning for Muslim groups within Spain. Spain has a large percentage of people who identify as Muslim, especially in the south of Spain because of the close proximity to the north of the continent of Africa. Vox supports shutting down mosques throughout the country and arresting and deporting what the party leaders consider to be extremist imams. They are also advocating for government funded military missions against “Jihadist threats.” Finally, in a fashion comparable to that of President Trump, Vox lobbies for the Spanish government to enclose the two Spanish cities in Northern Africa, Ceuta and Melilla, in walls in order to prevent any immigrants entering Spain by way of the cities.

The concern following Vox stems from the connections people can draw between the party and the former dictator, Francisco Franco. Vox draws on a voter population that openly sympathizes with Franco. Their support is at 10% with the average voters being men between the ages of 35 and 44 despite the support for Vox within the youth population of Spain also growing. Comparisons are drawn between Vox and Franco’s doctrines of nationalism, policies of limiting women’s rights, and traditional catholic ideologies. The rise of the alt-right within Spain is important to watch as many people within and outside the country can and will be directly affected.

Climate Change is Bringing a New Meaning to “Cold War”

Image of Arctic Circle ice caps
Ponds on the Ocean. Source: NASA, Creative Commons.

When I first heard the report that President Trump was working to try to buy Greenland, I was so taken aback that I checked to make sure I was not listening to an article put out by the satirical news outlet, The Onion. Sure enough, I was listening to my NPR podcast and the President attempting to buy another country could in no way be described as fake news. A little more research into this interesting political maneuver revealed the true intentions behind the President’s financial offer to Denmark. Geopolitics are suddenly playing a massive role in climate change as countries prepare for a world with significantly higher sea levels than we are currently experiencing. This is unfortunate as major powers are focusing on investing money and resources on being prepared for the after effects of climate change instead of focusing on fixing the crisis itself. Greenland’s proximity to the Arctic Circle gives the country who owns it, currently Denmark, a claim to the continental shelf that runs under Arctic ice and thus a stake in the trade route that will be unveiled as the ice continues to melt. Ownership of Greenland would allow the United States to gain an important leg up in the race to control the Arctic.

It is indisputable that the planet is progressively getting warmer, and that humans are a direct cause of the continued warming. Green house gasses and carbon emissions produced by the world’s top producing countries directly contribute to a decrease in the expanse of ice caps and in an increase in ocean levels around the world. Average global sea level has a pattern of rising and falling over the centuries of Earth’s existence. The most recent global sea level rise, the one we are experiencing now, has proven to be significantly more rapid than past circumstances. Scientists have noted that should the current rise in sea levels continue, continental coastlines will become drastically different. World leaders do have an incentive to ignore the serious ramifications of the melting arctic ice caps in favor of the possibility of new trade routes over the top of the world. Once the ice caps melt, it could be possible for ships to travel through the Arctic without the need for ice-breaking machines.

The new trade route in question is the Northern Sea route, a route already used during the summer months but that many trade dependent nations are hoping will be open year-round. It extends from the Barents Sea (Russia’s border with Norway) to the Bering Strait (between Serbia and Alaska). Current shipping lanes require ships to start from the Mediterranean, continue through the Suez Canal, and finish through the Red Sea. With this current route, ships travel over 13,049 miles over the course of approximately 48 days. The Northern Sea Route would reduce the transit time for ships by 10 to 15 days.

It is becoming increasingly clear to major power countries that border the Arctic ice caps, such as the United States, Canada, and Russia, how strategically important control over the developing trade route could be. As of yet, Russia has been the fastest actor. Russia has the most stake in the Arctic Circle, despite the United States and Canada having claim to a large portion of the Arctic. The superpower went as far as to plant a titanium flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, on the North Pole in 2007. More recently, Russia has been maintaining multiple military bases within the Arctic Circle that include over 50 ice-breaking machines. Along with the increased military presence of Russia in the Arctic, the civilian presence has increased. Nearly two million Russians live in large cities created in Russia’s Arctic territory. In comparison, the United States maintains a singular airfield in the Arctic, on land that technically belongs to Greenland, and the largest United States town of Utqiaġvik houses a population of a little more than 4,000. President Trump’s attempt to obtain the island of Greenland as part of the United States shows the US beginning to counteract Russian presence in the Arctic. Tensions are slowly rising, and many analysts have reason to believe that a major conflict over territory and control of a consistently melting Arctic could arise in the next decade.

It is clear that these nations have been paying attention to the melting ice caps but none of the countries’ representatives have presented an adequate plan for counteracting the issue. In 2015, 195 world powers signed the Paris Agreement, the goal of which was to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels instead of the forecasted 2 C. During this 2015 conference, the United States promised to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 2025, Russia did not ratify the agreement, and Canada promised to reduce its annual greenhouse gas emissions below that of 2005 levels: 30 per cent below by 2030. Canada and the United States made bold commitments and led the way for other countries to do the same.

However, these commitments have not been fulfilled. In the United States in 2018, emissions rose to an estimated 3.4 percent. A country that was once considered a leader and role model in the fight against climate change has all but withdrawn from the fight. The President of the United States, Donald Trump, has even announced plans to officially abandon the Paris Agreement and has simultaneously removed carbon-reducing regulations set in place by the previous administration. The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, has recently announced that not only is the country on track to meet this goal, but will also undoubtedly exceed it. The claim has brought hope to many environmental activists that Canada could replace the United States as a leader in fighting the climate crisis. However, reports from within Canada dispute Trudeau’s predictions. The Environment and Climate Change Canada’s January 2019 projection has predicted that with current and upcoming climate policies, Canada will barely reach 19 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Russia’s response to the climate crisis has been lackluster at best and the Climate Action Tracker rates Russia’s target emissions at the lowest rating, “Critically Insufficient.” In September of 2019 the United Nations held a Climate Conference in New York where world leaders re-evaluated prior commitments and could choose to update their emission goals. Canada pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. This is an admirable goal, but leaders have not yet put forth a plan to achieve the emissions rate. The United States was largely silent in the discussions and did not provide any new promises to reduce emissions. Surprisingly, Russia agreed to ratify the Paris Agreement at the 2019 Climate Conference.

The United States, Canada, and Russia are countries that have a very large sphere of influence and it is disheartening to witness these superpowers focus energy and resources on exploiting a disastrous effect of climate change instead of working towards preventing and ending the warming of the planet. Should the ice caps melt fully, yes, a new trade route would be opened, but millions of people would be affected by the rising waters. The human habitat would be drastically affected along coastlines; more than a hundred million people live along coastlines or within range of the newly predicted coastline and many people live on the decreasing ice caps themselves.

In the race to establish territory in the Arctic, conflicts between very powerful nations could arise and citizens of the world are largely being left out of the conversation. Should the ice caps continue to melt at the rate that supporters of the new trade route are hoping for, the people who call the ice caps their home will be left with limited options and the countries who are laying claim to the Arctic are not providing any options for them. Arctic bordering countries like Russia, the United States, and Canada recognize the opportunity to gain political, economic, and strategic advantages over other major powers. The conflict that is arising from this recognition is another effect of climate change and should violence erupt in the North, the citizens of all of the included countries as well as separate countries could be affected. It is easy to acknowledge how rising water resulting from ever warming ice caps could contribute to loss of land and increased flooding. However, it is important to recognize how global warming will affect human rights in other ways, such as increased reasons for conflict between major powers around the world. President Trump offering to buy Greenland is an evident sign of a growing issue across the world, validating the concern that global warming can and will negatively impact human rights in more ways than usually understood.

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

Coming to Terms with the Past: Germany and the United States

On Thursday, October 18th, an event titled How Germany Has Come to Terms With Its Past was held at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The evening began with a lecture by former German diplomat Stefan Schlüeter who discussed how Germany has addressed its notorious role in World War II. Following, Schlüeter participated in a panel discussion with Laura Anderson (Alabama Humanities Foundation), Kiara Boone (Equal Justice Initiative) and Gregory Wilson (History Instructor at Lawson State Community College), putting this topic in the context of United States history.

Stefan opened by claiming there was silence in Germany after World War II, likely due to embarrassment and shame of the Nazi regime. Nevertheless, Schlüeter insisted we must keep the memory alive and never forget the millions who lost their lives during the Holocaust.  Although there is an obvious presence of the country’s past, since the 1960s, German students have learned about the Third Reich in which he explained the teaching style and age of the student can mold how one processes this information; therefore, it is pivotal how one is taught. Such attempts to highlight and critique bigotry are a work in progress as we’ve clearly witnessed a resurgence of populism throughout Europe and North America.

The subsequent panel discussion centered on three main questions: How do we talk about the past? Who owns the past? How do we come to terms with the past? As a result of Birmingham’s legacy in the Civil Rights Movement, the discussion largely addressed the history of slavery and Jim Crow laws in the United States.

Kiara Boone Addressing a Panel Question. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

The discussion began by addressing how Americans are forgetting about controversial moments in history such as the Holocaust and Civil Rights Movement. This generated discussion about the possibility of mandating education of these histories, to ensure such events are never forgotten or to occur again. Wilson explained how he takes his students to museums, so they can view archives and artifact preservation behind the scenes, giving history a tangible presence.  The panel then suggested there are holes in history and how bridging them with more information can cultivate nuanced discussion.

As for memorials, such as The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, it was suggested they be accompanied by information about the events as well as add individual narratives to the numbers of those who experienced oppression. The use of storytelling puts a face to a story, such as Harriet Tubman, and is better suited to resonate with audiences. Although, we can’t just change laws that mandate education, we need to change heart and minds of those who might carry attitudes that reflect the past.

When discussion centered on who owns the past, the panel demonstrated mixed feelings. It was argued that because we are all linked to history, we all own it. However, it was also demonstrated how depictions of history are predicated on power, leading to critiques of about Civil Rights education such as the lack of teaching around activist tactics and methods of the opposition. Such critiques beg us to further investigate these events and amplify the voices of people missing from these histories.

Following the panel discussion, audience members contributed to the discussion with their own questions such as: To what extent should Civil Rights education be focused on shock value? How do we integrate the legacy of colonialism into these teachings? What does it mean to be a good ally? Ultimately, dignifying these questions not only give us a more informed, honest account of history but also ensures those who need their voices heard the most are afforded their agency and liberation.

Assisting the Non-Assisted

On Monday, October 1, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event with local education, faith-based and law organizations, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part 1: Focus on Europe. Following, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of UAB Institute for Human Rights, and April Jackson-MacLennan, J.D., from the Law Office of John Charles Bell, L.L.C., covered the legal challenges of this phenomenon from an international and national perspective, respectively.

Dr. Reuter Presenting Refugee Statistics. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

The event began with a viewing of the documentary Non Assistance, sponsored by the Consulate General of Switzerland in Atlanta, which illustrates how sociopolitical crises in the Middle East and North Africa have galvanized thousands of people to flee their home countries, permeating the Mediterranean Sea with frail boats past occupancy, holding limited supplies. Just like its title, the film focused on the lack of assistance refugee boats receive during their treacherous journey, highlighting the tragedy on March 27, 2011 that lead to 63 Tripolitanian refugee fatalities.

Despite endearment from many Europeans citizens, like the vigilantes that aim to rescue whoever they can with their personal boats, many ships in the Mediterranean to do not strive to assist the refugees. However, in 2015 alone, Doctors Without Borders rescued over 23,000 people in the Mediterranean with a just three boats, demonstrating how non-governmental parties can be instrumental in addressing this crisis. One theory for this disparity is, since the first country of contact is responsible for reporting asylum, governments do not want to carry the burden of assisting refugees. Such an outcome begs us to ask: What steps are the European Union (EU) taking to address this issue? How would you feel being lost and abandoned at sea with just the shirt on your back? Where is the humanity?

After the film, Dr. Reuter and Mrs. Jackson-MacLennan fielded questions from the aghast, yet spirited, audience. People wanted to know what can be done; answers centered on policy change and contacting elected officials. Others asked why rescue ships are being held at the ports, leading to discussion about the legal entanglements that now restrict these boats from aiding refugees. Despite there being less rescue boats navigating the Mediterranean and a drop in migration via this route, often attributed to slowing of violence in the Syrian Civil War, there is still a need to assist refugees.

Mrs. Jackson-MacLennan Engaging with a Student. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

On November 12, the sequel to this three-part series, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part II: Focus on the United States will be held at Birmingham-Southern College and followed by the third event in early 2019, at Samford University, where action planning around this global issue will take place. Please join us for the following events whereas every voice and helping hand counts.

Women’s Rights are Human Rights: Ireland Continues to Criminalize Abortion

Tomorrow, May 25, Ireland will vote on a referendum of their Eighth Amendment: the abortion amendment. The referendum posits safe and regulated healthcare, as well as the removal of the stigma placed on both the women who seek abortions and the doctors who perform them. **This is a repost from the fall of 2016. 

March for Choice in Dublin On Saturday 29th. September 2012. Source: William Murphy, Creative Commons.
March for Choice in Dublin On Saturday 29th. September 2012. Source: William Murphy, Creative Commons.

Abortion. It is a heavily debated topic. From the beginning, its very existence is consistently brought up in philosophy papers and classes as a moral question. The negative connotation associated with abortion can make many people cringe when they simply hear the word. In the United States, it is an issue that conservatives and progressives rally around, but for different reasons. Classic conservative ideology revolves around public virtue, self-reliance, freedom, and cultural solidarity. One might argue that if classic conservatism highly values freedom, then the ideology would advocate for the freedom to choose whether to have an abortion or not. However, modern conservatism has implemented a little twist in such ideological freedom. Modern conservatism has emphasized the nuclear family model and to a degree, Christianity. Ronald Reagan once said, “We cannot diminish the value of one category of life — the unborn — without diminishing the value of all human life.”  We see a shift in ideological values. The argument could be made that modern conservatives still value freedom as much as the classic conservative ideology does. The new paradigm frames the issue of abortion as not about the freedom to choose, but rather the act of having an abortion is committing the act of murder. This places a negative stigma with regards to abortion due to the fact that murder is socially condemned and lawfully illegal. Progressive ideology tends to promote social justice, egalitarianism, and inclusiveness. It tends to frame the issue of abortion as the mother’s right to choose whether to continue the pregnancy or not because a fetus is a part of her body, and not a human being considering that it has not been birthed. The belief that abortion is immoral stems from the emphasis on family values as well as religious interpretations that consider abortion an act of murder. In relation to all of these things, is it fair for a national government to ban abortion? I’m not talking about defunding Planned Parenthood or limiting the amount of abortion clinics in a country. Is it fair for a national government to blatantly make abortion illegal and a punishable crime? The United Nations Human Rights Committee doesn’t think so in relation to Ireland’s ban on abortion.

Ireland’s deep-rooted Catholic tradition appears in many of its laws, one of those being the country’s eighth constitutional amendment. The amendment of 1983 established a nationwide ban on abortion. The amendment reads: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” It can be debated that this amendment implies that the unborn fetus has more rights than the person carrying the child. So, when it comes to the United Nation’s definition of Human Rights, who do those rights extend to? Can an unborn fetus have human rights? Once again, the United Nations says “no.” The broad definition of human rights given to us by the UN states “human rights are universal legal guarantees protecting individuals and groups against actions which interfere with fundamental freedoms and human dignity.” The word “individual” has been deemed insufficient as to identifying if that entity must have already been born in order to take ownership over human rights. Due to the need for clarification on what makes someone an “individual,” there have been a few other conventions and commissions within the UN that has attempted to resolve such confusion on this controversial issue. For example, the Convention on the Rights of the Child does not identify one’s right to life until birth.  However, the CRC does say, “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.” Rhonda Copelon, Christina Zampas, Elizabeth Brusie, and Jacqueline deVore argue that “this reflects, at most, recognition of a state’s duty to promote, through nutrition, health and support directed to the pregnant woman, a child’s capacity to survive and thrive after birth…” They also argue that access to safe abortions to pregnant adolescent women is a human right given to women under the right to adequate health. That is, providing safe abortions will decrease the maternal mortality rate due to the decrease in unsafe abortions.

Ireland’s law on abortion insinuates that if the fetus has any sort of problems in the womb, that the mother will still be subject to carry it to full term. In the 2011 case of Amanda Mellet, 21 weeks into pregnancy, the fetus was diagnosed with Edwards’ Syndrome and congenital heart defects that led doctors to believe that it would either die in the womb, or perhaps only live a few hours after being born. Amanda and her husband had requested an exception to the ban on abortion because of the emotional toll that carrying the fetus to full term would bring upon the both of them, but especially for Amanda who would literally have to carry the fetus whose life was already predetermined to end in just a matter of time. The Mellet couple was denied such an exception due to the fact that the mother’s life was not at risk. However, they traveled to Liverpool where they would be provided a safe abortion by a doctor without being criminalized.

About Ten Thousand People Attended A Rally In Dublin In Memory Of Savita Halappanavar. Source: William Murphy, Creative Commons.
About Ten Thousand People Attended A Rally In Dublin In Memory Of Savita Halappanavar. Source: William Murphy, Creative Commons.

Ireland’s abortion ban carries a heavy weight on the issue of the mother’s health. Although Irish Law claims that the only exception for a woman to get an abortion is if her life is at risk, doctors claim that the language used for exceptions is very vague and medical professionals would rather not perform one at all rather than risk going to prison for following their own interpretation of the exception to the law. In 2012, Savita Halappanavar was in extreme physical and emotional discomfort when she knew she was miscarrying, but her request for an abortion was denied because doctors said that the fetus still had a heartbeat. She arrived at the hospital on Saturday. On Wednesday, it was discovered that the heartbeat of the fetus had stopped; Savita died due to septicemia one week after arriving at the hospital. It is believed that if the doctors would have performed an abortion, Savita would have lived.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that Ireland’s abortion ban is a violation of women’s human rights because the law “subjects a woman to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” Such a ruling should not come as a shock to the international community considering UN legislation has insisted that the rights of the unborn are non-existent. Ireland’s law arguably gives more rights to the unborn than it gives to the human. Ireland is creating a social stigma that labels women who get an abortion as murderers and criminals.

Under Irish law, women who have had an abortion within the country are subject to up to fourteen years in prison. So, what’s the solution? Ireland insists that women who want access to a safe abortion should get one out of the country. According to Amnesty UK, a minimum of ten women and girls travel out of Ireland and into England every day in order to get access to a safe and legal abortion. However, not everyone is fortunate enough to travel out of the country to acquire proper medical treatment due to the expense of making such a trip. Also, those who are refugees or asylum seekers are not legally able to leave Ireland at all. Therefore, although Ireland may think that they are being reasonable by allowing women to receive abortions elsewhere, they are still impeding on the human rights of women. Even for the ones who can afford to travel, it is still an expense and a nuisance to have to leave one’s own country for such a procedure; especially for those who are experiencing extreme pain and suffering due to a complicated pregnancy.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee looked at the case of Amanda Mellet (the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a complaint for her) and found that her human rights were being violated under articles 7, 17, and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. I commend Ireland on accepting marriage equality, but it is now time to recognize the rights of women. Women have been denied certain rights for so long and although we have gained many, the good fight is not over. The same government who says that it is okay for same sex couples to marry should be the same government that allows women the right to terminate a pregnancy.

 

 

Cornbread Millionaires: Reflections on Riva and Josephine

 by LEONARD SMITH
a picture of Birkenau in the snow
Birkenau. Source: Midnight Believer, Creative Commons

I was enthused and a bit trepidatious when professor Madden-Lunsford announced we would be attending, as a class, the lecture of a Holocaust survivor and an African American woman whose father had been lynched when she was a child. I knew their stories would be both amazing and difficult to hear.

During my undergraduate studies in the early 90’s at Auburn University at Montgomery, I took a history course on the Holocaust. Before the course I had considered myself knowledgeable of the Holocaust. I discovered how ignorant I was when I learned of: the depth and breadth of the brutality and mass murder; the willing collusion of many nations and millions of people; how many nations including the U.S. denied sanctuary by not increasing immigration visas; how entire educated societies and cultures readily accepted the expansion of racism and anti-semitism to point whole scale genocide without question, because it fed their fear and anger; the discovery that if a group can be successfully scapegoated almost anything can be done to them, with little resistance, because to defend a scapegoat with logic and reason is to become a scapegoat. The most shocking discovery for me was that despite mountains of irrefutable evidence, the number of Holocaust deniers was growing. The knowledge I learned in that course changed me permanently and profoundly. I lost much of my faith in mankind. For a period of time during and following the class I suffered recurring nightmares.

Before entering the class I had naively believed that such an event could never happen again. I now know that not only could it be repeated, but that it has, in Cambodia, and most recently Sudan.

However, I also discovered that individual human courage was boundless and that miracles large and small happen. That was where my last personal seed of hope took refuge.

It is with this background and knowledge that I intellectually looked forward to, and was emotionally apprehensive of, hearing Riva Hirsch and Josephine McCall speak. I knew that these women were and are courageous. I wanted to be near that courage and learn from it.

Riva is a force of nature. She spoke of her own miracles; being found in Ukraine by people who spoke German and because of her Yiddish background being able to understand them (She referred to Yiddish as Jewish and I hoped that didn’t confuse too many people in the audience); the guard not looking underneath the carriage where she was hiding during her flight to safety; being hidden by a nun, who also spoke German, and that nun paying the ultimate sacrifice for helping her. When she spoke of being all alone in the forest, battling malnutrition, typhus, malaria, and hordes of lice, I knew she was made of far sterner stuff than I.

Riva spoke of her father’s business and how her family and his workers were a close knit group, an extended family before the war came to the Ukraine. Yet, for fear of putting themselves and their families in danger, these workers shut their doors to Riva and her family during their flight. Only one offered temporary refuge and only after Riva’s mother gave him all her jewels. As Riva spoke, so many of the atrocities I had learned of in that Holocaust course came back to the forefront of my mind. My faith in mankind was eroding again.

Though I had girded myself for  Riva’s story, Josephine, was like so many neighbors, coworkers, and friends I have known over the years. I had heard voices like hers over countless retail counters, through back screen doors and hollered from front porches. Her soft Blackbelt accent lulled me into a sense of comfort.

Riva’s story had taken place in WWII era Ukraine; a place I had only known through books and movies. But, I am familiar with Lowndes County, Alabama. I spent my childhood in neighboring Montgomery county. I had crossed Lowndes county many times on both the Old Selma Road and Highway 80. I knew the upper echelons of white society in Lowndes county were mockingly referred to as cornbread millionaires. They lived in antebellum mansions full of antiques; they were land rich but money poor. So much so, that if you went to their homes for supper, the only thing they could afford to serve in their heirloom china and silver was cornbread and beans with hog meat. I had heard it discussed that this facade and lack of resources made whites in Lowndes County particularly brutal in their treatment of black folks.

I am well steeped in the culture and nuances of Southern race relations. Though my experience of it is as a white male, born in 1964. This was the first time I had heard someone speak personally of the loss of a family member at the hands of open, socially sanctioned racist. I was surprised to learn that lynching was defined as death at the hands of three or more people and was not limited to death by hanging. I should not have been as surprised, as I was, when Josephine informed the audience that indenture (the practice of holding someone on your land as a laborer if they owed you a debt, essentially de facto slavery) was still enforced by they law in Lowndes County in 1947.

Josephine stated that her father, Elmore Bolling’s crime in the eyes of white men was that he had succeeded and purchased land, resulting in a white woman having to move off the property. Even though Mr. Bolling helped the women move and found her exactly the accommodation she wanted, his actions still constituted a crime against an unwritten social code, punishable by death.

I knew whites who thought this way, including many within my own family. They believed that all black men were lazy and stupid. Therefore, if a black man succeeded and had wealth, he must have cheated a white man or had help from interfering Northern whites and/or the Federal Government, which was the same as cheating a white man.

That was what was most disturbing for me about Josephine’s story. Her father’s murderers could have been friends of my grandparents or distant relations. Many people within my family were certainly capable of such a crime. Even the more moderate older family members believed that if a black man was lynched he must have done something stupid to put himself in harms way.

Both Riva and Josephine talked about how we must continue to speak up and talk about such atrocities and not let the deniers corrupt history and attempt to repeat it. Silence is the enemy of justice.

My lack of faith in mankind was growing. I wondered if speaking out was enough. The attitudes of many whites I know, especially those young enough to know better, is still shockingly racist. Just this week, I spoke with a friend who teaches high school English. She was distraught because a student had turned in an essay that was essentially a white supremest manifesto. The student was not a child on the fringe but rather a well liked person very popular in the high school social structure. I am often gobsmacked when I hear well educated white colleagues use the N-word, assuming I am as racist as they. I looked around at the audience in attendance and found them to very simpatico with the Riva and Josephine. The people who most needed to hear the speakers were not there. Just last night the local CBS news reported that according to the Anti-defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents were at a twenty year high. Up 47% in just the last two years.

I am honored to have heard Riva and Josephine’s stories and bask in the presence of their courage. I will speak up and continue to seek to root out my own internal vestiges of racism.

I spoke to Josephine after the presentation. We chuckled about Lowndes County’s cornbread millionaires. She told me where her father’s historical maker, that she had worked so hard to get erected, was located in Lowndesboro, just two hundred yards from the yellow flashing caution light. I knew the spot.

I spoke of my racist father who carried a badge and a gun for the Montgomery police force for twenty-five years and then twenty years more as an Alabama State Trooper. I told her, with dismay, of my father’s braggadocios, I heard as child, after he had a few beers. He told how he and his friends in high school would lay in wait in the dark, to catch the black men walking to town along the railroad tracks on Saturday night to visit their wives or girlfriends who were domestics and nannies in town. They subjected these men to humiliations and tortures. Their favorite being to strip them of their clothes and put them in the trunk of a car. They would release them naked on the highway, hands bound with lit firecrackers tied to their ankles and backside. My father always smiled with glee when he told these exploits. Josephine, compassionate and understanding of my grief over having such a father, clasp my hand and nodded. She was familiar with these kinds of events.

I left the lecture remembering that in my youth, in the seventies and eighties, I had believed by now we, as a society, would have a more level field of justice and opportunity for all, and that hate crimes would become fewer and fewer as society became more enlightened and heterogenous. However, as I walked to my car, a fear chewed at me. Was the leveling so many had fought for, and were still fighting for, beginning to slope again, becoming muddy and slippery, rising in elevation to the disadvantage and injustice of minorities? Will there be enough voices speaking up to again seek a leveling? History does not make me hopeful.

 

Leonard Lee Smith holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from Auburn University at Montgomery. He is a non-degree seeking graduate student in writing at University of Alabama at Birmingham. He won a Hackney award in 2012 for short fiction. He has told stories for The Moth Radio Hour