The Arc of History Bends towards Justice

Inside of Sixteenth Baptist Church
Inside of Sixteen Street Baptist Church. Source: Nicholas R. Sherwood.

On Sunday, January 15, 2017–the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr–Ajanet Rountree and I filed into the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, a day before the nation officially recognized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The historic location held a special church service commemorating King and his contemporaries, reinforcing the role Birmingham played in the Civil Rights Movement, and honoring the career service of former Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Arriving a full hour before the service was slated to begin I was met with hundreds of congregants on the church’s steps. There was an air of energized reverence, among the mostly black audience, gathering to hear one of their own speak of her successes. I overheard bellowing laughs, old friends recognizing and greeting each other in the open air of Birmingham, parents importing their children “BE QUIET DURING THE SERVICE”, and the slow but steady knocking of feet slowly climbing the front steps of the church. An unapologetic rainbow of cloth, sequins, and even feathers peacocked in front of me. Here, I recognized, is an old and dignified community in their church best. With red dresses, gold sashes, purple bowties, green bowler hats, pink lapels, Birmingham decided to greet Loretta Lynch et al. with the glorious visage only a Southern, black church can offer. A greeter handed me a church pamphlet as I entered. He seemed annoyed with security constraints but overall pleased with the turn out. Up a tight winding stairwell we climbed, halfway up I had a fleeting thought, “Is this the stairwell where the bomb was detonated?” With our seats aggressively claimed, we settled in for a two-hour event.

Loretta Lynch was born on May 21, 1959 when much of the Southern United States lacked equal rights and protections for persons of color. At that time, black female lawyers were simply nonexistent. In her first appointment, she served under President Clinton as US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which led to her first leadership role under President Obama, as US Attorney for the Eastern District for New York. In between her presidential appointments, she was special counsel for the prosecutor for the UN International Criminal Tribunal. Her work as a prosecutor with specialties in witness tampering and public official corruption, garnered her successful influence on the national and international level. Working on the case of Rwandan genocide, with her assistance, this was the first case the UNICT successfully tried and delivered a verdict to individuals culpable in genocide.

As Attorney General, Lynch continued her impressive established human rights record. Before her appointment to Attorney General, one of Lynch’s most famous cases involved the prosecution of NYC police officers on behalf of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. Louima was violently sodomized by the officers while in custody, and her involvement in this case began a focus of hers on the unfair imprisonment and maltreatment of men of color on behalf of police officers. Another case involved an undercover sting operation neutralizing a terrorist act by a Bangladeshi radical jihadist. The planned act would have detonated a 1000-pound bomb outside of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City. She combated racism during her career while defending American freedom and security. During King’s time, these two ideals would have seem incompatible.

The service was–in the spirit of many evangelical black churches–participatory.  “Amen!”, “praise the Lord”, “that’s right!”, and sometimes the affirmative “mhmm” punctured the speaker at hand. The church choir belted. The congregation did our best to keep up. Everyone completely focused on what was happening ‘onstage’. Actors from UAB’s theatre department performed a piece on the struggle for civil rights– weaving testimony, narrative, song, and history–during the service. Ministers preached and politicians charmed as we patiently waited for Loretta to take the stage… our leading lady I’m sure, waited patiently too.

I hope she enjoyed the pomp and circumstance in honor of her, in honor of a black woman leading the Justice Department, and in honor of the resilient and honorable fight for equality for which Birmingham has long contributed. The red carpet was a visceral color in this holy sanctuary; red is the color passion, power, blood, and love. If the room and all its inhabitants on that warm January afternoon had an aura, it was surely red.

Her father was a Baptist minister and, it was apparent to me at least, she has maintained a sacrosanct comfort inside a church’s walls. Early in her remarks, she quoted Exodus: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place’, followed by “generations of men and women have found the Lord in 16th Street Baptist Church”. She continued by paying homage to King and his contemporaries. Both King and Lynch, certainly, were and are advocates for human rights.

Justice and human rights are intrinsically linked; one cannot protect rights without the legal mechanisms in place to defend them.

Both the power of the people (Dr. King’s specialty) and the power of the law (Lynch’s) must create a unity. Lynch’s speech reflected this unity. As Lynch’s remarks moved from King and Birmingham, and their involvement in the history of American Civil Rights, her discourse changed. This event was billed as a special service commemorating King while honoring Lynch. The past, and all its demons, was locked away in memory. Today, the congregation found out, the first black, female Attorney General was able to reconcile some of the atrocities that may have sat unchallenged in King’s time.

picture of Loretta Lynch, Former US Attorney General.
Loretta Lynch, Former US Attorney General. Source: Nicholas R. Sherwood

Lynch, in her final speech as Attorney General, swiveled her address from the past to the present. It was at this moment, the crowd hushed. “I know that we are in difficult days now. Many fear that King’s dream – and all that has flowed from it – is at risk like never before.” Her demeanor changed. Speaking of King, a human and civil rights luminary, provided a strength to her words. Indeed, this was prototypical King: a black, Baptist, southern church. How many of his addresses were delivered in such similar circumstances? Lynch seemed to sense the connection. As she spoke of the present, the congregation could sense how concerned she was for the present state of affairs in America. Attention was now assuredly and willfully fixed on Lynch and her words. Her voice, before this point reflecting a pastor’s cadence of lulls and jubilation, now quietened and hardened. She was no longer a guest minister who worked for the federal government. She was now a soon-to-be private citizen giving her critique and naming her personal fears.

As a prosecutor, what would she have feared? Injustice, I would argue. Her reputation as fierce suggests she had few fears in office and in practice. She understands justice and its many forms. She was unrelenting towards oppressors, terrorists, and corruption. However, Lynch was also just, often calling for lenience in cases of nonviolent crimes, especially drug related crimes, opting to provide second chances at a free life rather than jail indeterminately. She spoke for the victims too, with a special interest in police brutality and discrimination cases. The first black woman to serve as Attorney General, and one raised in the American South at that, Lynch understood racial animus. She knows too well how hard one must knock on a cracked glass ceiling before it comes crashing down.

Turning her speech from the past to the present, Lynch acknowledged the present political climate, which terrifies many minority groups in the United States. Her assumed replacement, Jeff Sessions, is from Alabama- another southerner taking over the Justice Department. Sessions has been criticized of blatant racism, as has his boss, now President Donald Trump. The juxtaposition weighed heavily in 16th Street Baptist Church. The first black female Attorney General will likely be succeeded by an accused-racist; the first black President replaced by an accused racist. However, Lynch litigated, the lesson to be gleaned from Dr. King is, and always should be, the persistent utility of hope.

Hope and hard work, she argued, will influence lawmakers and laymen alike.

Again, “amens!” and “yes ma’am!” rang LOUDLY in the congregation. There was fear, yes. However, Lynch bore witness to the fear and offered her testimony to rise from it. The congregation, taking their cue from her, found their voice once more and responded to her lines of power. Her best crafted line, in my opinion, acknowledged darkness and offered an existential purpose for it:

“And if it does come to pass that we do enter a period of darkness, let us remember – that is when dreams are best made.”

King’s Dream– she reminded us–arose like a phoenix from the ashes, galvanizing the struggle for civil rights in America.  It is generational dream;  a living one.  “And when our time comes, we shall pass the dream on to those who are already raising their hand and those to come.  So that the arc of the moral universe continues straight and true – continues towards justice.”

Her remarks ending, she thanked us. She returned to her seat and the entire church sang the anthem, “We Shall Overcome”. Like President Obama, her final speech was a plea for hard, hard work. She channeled both King and Obama at times; mixing King’s optimism with Obama’s realism. This balance of past and present, of hope and pragmatism, characterized her speech. Her illustrious public career, now ended, could be characterized in similar terms. She understands the power of mercy and granted hope to defendants who she deemed reparable. Lynch also recognized and publicly testified the threats to justice: discrimination, harassment, and corruption.

Now that her tenure has ended, I imagine Lynch feels comfort in being a public citizen who enjoys a church service, like the ones her father ministered while she was growing up. In 1963, at 16th Street Baptist Church, four girls–Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair– were murdered by white supremacists. Fifty-four years later, the first black, female US Attorney General gave her farewell address in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the enduring legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. History was reconciled but never forgotten at 16th Street Baptist Church.

Dear Dr. King: An Open Letter

picture of a pen on paper
Source: redspotted, Creative Commons.

Dear Dr. King,

Earlier in the week as a nation, we celebrated your life and legacy. Your mantle—the principled ethic of human and civil rights, has bolstered a new cohort of activists and advocates across the age spectrum to pursue nonviolent resistance as a method of peace. We, your students, stand on the edge of a changing of the guard as the first days of a new presidency are upon us. We stand poised as workers for a harvest that began with you, John Lewis, Claudette Colvin, Diane Nash, Ruby Bridges, James Meredith and others, and will last beyond us all. We are woefully cognizant of the stance we must take. However, if I am honest, and speaking solely for myself, I must say that I had not expected to see these times—the swirling undercurrent of denied bias–for I considered them long past.

Sir, we exist within a compartmentalized nation. Not purely divided along racial lines, though there is a discourse and significant evidence of deeply rooted prejudice. We do not carry the burden of the manacles of segregation but partisanship that breeds itself insidiously in the nullification of the facts and the renunciation of commonality. We have misplaced our sense of solidarity. We fail to appreciate the inescapable network of mutuality that ties our destinies together. In many ways, the African American, the Muslim, the Hispanic, the female, the disabled, and many others are exiles in their own land.

The words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence speak of liberty and justice for all. Today in 2017, there is a tangible shift that has made it clear that all who are different–whether identified by race, creed, ability, religion, or sexual orientation–are subjects of a ‘narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. It is an isolating feeling…furtive eyes, callous whispers, and disdain-filled rhetoric question one’s Americanness. You wrote that anyone who lives inside of the United States can never be considered an outsider. Yet, the promise of inalienable civil and human rights seem like vapors in this country at the moment. I find myself interrogating my own Americanness, particularly when majority of the political leaders do not look like me as Langston Hughes’ America ring in my head:

Little dark baby//little Jew baby//little outcast//America seeking the stars, America is seeking tomorrow.//You are America.//I am America//America—the dream//America—the vision.//America—the star-seeking I.//Out of yesterday the chains of slavery; out of yesterday, the ghettos of Europe; out of yesterday, the poverty and pain of the old, old world, the building and struggle of this new one, we come//You and I, seeking the stars. You and I, you of blue eyes and the blond hair,//I of the dark eyes and the crinkly hair.//You and I offering hands being brothers, being one, being America. You and I.

There is a cliché that says, in essence–show me your friends, and I will show you your future. This sentiment, often given to high school students who choose a disputed set of friends, wanes in its application to the position of leadership or even the dinner table. Racial bias is cross-cultural. I am fully aware that naturally we seek those who are like us. Some Americans dismiss the reality of prejudice because they have a black coworker or homosexual boss. Yet, a closer examination of their inner circle, whether board members or in their cell phone directory, would reveal a bias. We often discount a full cultural experience when we dismiss those who live outside our natural boundaries, thus tainting perception, policy, and conversation.

Sir, I am anxious that the values, which make us uniquely American, will become our demise. Not a demise that is irreversible but a demise that will take years to repair. Some have become satisfied with buffoonery and disrespect, innuendo and distraction, rather than positioning ourselves as sons and daughters of Issachar who understand the times, speak with dignity, knowledge, artistry, and respect, and live as citizens of the world. President Barack Obama led this nation without scandal. His devotion to his wife and children will remain an example to millions who possibly thought a Black nuclear family, filled with laughs and love, only existed on television. Although his presidency was not perfect, I do believe, history will record and many will say that America’s first Black president was for ALL Americans.

You dreamed that your children’s character would speak more clearly than their skin color. Yet unlike his predecessors and his successor, President Obama has been subject of highest form of unfounded public ridicule and accusation. Michelle, his wife and our first lady, has been called derogatory terms on social media outlets without cause and without shame. Citizens shout on airplanes and in cafeterias, without provocation, racial mantras manufactured at political rallies. The projection of subjective opinion infects the habitual audience, lulling it into accepting theories without question or conviction. War veterans and civil rights heroes are targets of disrespect while vile and ruthless dictators receive praise. A minority–disproportionally in most cases African-American–experiences a denied opportunity, defined by a poor choice that garners a criminal record, and a lifetime of lack. Death comes at the hands of police or ‘concerned citizens’ who view us as monsters and shoot us like animals. Franz Fanon said that the colonizers consistently refer to the colonized in dehumanizing terms, reducing them to the state of an animal, and dwell in disordered violence.

Sir, I feel we no longer believe in values.

Institutional injustice has sealed the great vaults of opportunity. The unqualified are in positions of significant power, perpetuating the white power structure that may leave minorities, irrespective of skin tone, with few alternatives. Disingenuous politicians, who claim to have the best interest of their constituents at heart, employ similar tactics as seen in your day that seek to ensure disenfranchisement, including gerrymandering. The disturbance of ancient burial grounds reveal capital interest trumps an honored recognition of historical abuse. Many Americans seem unfazed by the ramifications because it does not affect them. Such is the stance regarding climate change. The fierce sense of urgency has fallen on ears deafened by naysayers, refusing to engage in good-faith negotiations as they weaken the implications and forsake the responsibility of America as she relates directly to her citizens and fellow inhabitants of earth.

Sir, I sense we as a country no longer know what we believe. For some, life begins at conception so protection must be priority for the unborn while others believe it begins at birth. Yet, the protection of life does not apply to children or adults (who were once children) fleeing war or violence, and made to dwell in makeshift camps or drown off the coast of countries of refuge. Others seek religious freedom, wholeheartedly believing the founding of our country was based upon on their present religious interest. They say that religion is primarily a personal relationship between a human and God; that God will not force you to believe in him. However, this personal belief has made its way into the public space, inciting hateful exclusion of those who seek to practice their own personal religious relationship. There is a focus on the radicalism of one religion over another, a belief shrouded in the notion that one religion generates more terror than the other–a terror that you witnessed first-hand. Some believe that a quality education should be accessible to all children while others profess that the spread of funding can be unequal. Thus returning the nation to the pernicious ideology of separate but equal. Private schools could receive more government funding, leaving public schools in lack and rejecting an equal opportunity for education. It appears as though there is disregard for the right of public school attendees–regardless of color–to have an education on par with those attending private and/or charter schools.

Sir, we are presently confronted with blasted hope as the shadow of a deep disappointment settles upon us.

In the midst of conflicting emotions, we rise.

This is our decision.

Many of us, like you and the participants in the civil rights movement, find our option is the presentation of our bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the city and nation. Therefore, we rise. By the thousands, sir, we rise under the banner of universal civil and human rights for all human beings.

As a company of women mindful of the impending difficulties, we will rise against the patriarchy and misogyny. We will rise for the protection of women’s right to life and health. We will rise as allies, demanding the fullness of the promises of democracy, understanding that the oppressor never willingly grants freedom. With the knowledge that the greatest measure of a man or woman, is not where they stands in times of comfort and convenience but in times of challenge and controversy, we bear witness to nonviolent resistance as a means of direct action. Nonviolence creates a tension that forces the confrontation of the issue, in hopes that parties will find a seat at the table of negotiation, and walk away brothers as opposed to enemies.

Dr. King, we rise against unjust laws that degrade the human personality by distorting the soul, giving a false sense of superiority and inferiority. We have arrived at this moment in history where humanity, particularly those labelled incorrect according to a perceived bestiality, will rise aware of their humanity, hone their skills, and claim the victory. We rise in pursuit of positive and active peace, not just negative peace in the absence of violence.

There is no better time than now. As we can no longer wait for a more convenient time as our patience has grown thin at the threat to justice that has permeated our society. You wrote, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls on inevitability. It comes through the tireless effort and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself become an all of the forces of social stagnation.” Returning is not an option, sir, for upon us is the need for freedom.

Reverend King, you challenged church leaders to recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church because the level of disappointment with the stance of the church for status quo on issues of social justice, has turned people away from the church. Therefore, you implore the church to become a vocal presence, a powerhouse postured in authenticity rather than irrelevance or personal concern for the secular and sacred… a pursuit of Jesus as the ultimate drum major. Our new president said, because of his presidency, we will never be ignored again. I believe that he is correct in this analysis because his drum major instinct will find redirection, as grassroots movements will allow him to see that the definition of greatness is service, rooted in love.

Martin, now that I have read your words and given voice to my own, I must admit that like you, have no despair about the future. We must meet every challenge and confront lies with facts. We must comprehend the certainty of our linked destinies. We must continue the struggle until the fullness of your dream for civil and human rights becomes reality at the heart of this nation where discourse lays. We shall overcome.

We will overcome.

We can overcome.

Yes, we can!

 

Most sincerely,

Ajanet

THE BRIDGE PERSPECTIVE: HUMAN TRAFFICKING, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND RACE IN AMERICA

by Sunny Slaughter

It took me a minute to get my thoughts together on exactly what I wanted to say in this piece as a guest blogger. I rewrote this more than once, almost to the point of nausea thinking about whether I should not offend the host and its readers, but then I realized that truth can sometimes be a bitter pill to swallow, one drop can create a ripple effect, and this truth is my reality. Human Trafficking thrives off many things including silence. Human Rights is not always a matter of what is given, but rather what is demanded. Race and racism has never been about justice, but rather privilege and the privileged can never fully comprehend what they won’t ever fully experience.

picture of Stone Town Slave Trade. Source: Son of Groucho, Creative Commons.
Stone Town Slave Trade. Source: Son of Groucho, Creative Commons.

History does matter. The truth is I don’t personally like the term “modern-day slavery”. In fact, I’ve often wonder whose idea it was to coin this phrase in the first place?  “Slavery” and particularly in the U.S., was the legal victimization and oppression of an entire population of people based solely on race, that continues to have generational repercussions. Black women and girls were raped, beaten, held captive, violated, taken from their families, sold, mutilated and even murdered. They were forced to bare the children of their perpetrators, teach others how to endure, passed between the family and visitors of their owners, and publicly shamed by their own people. Men were stripped of their human dignity as they stood by and watched helplessly as the women and girls in their lives were violated, impregnated, taken and sold.  Even more poignant is the unspoken evil with regard to their own rape and violation. Blacks were forced to endure extreme and hostile conditions of labor in fields and industries without regard to age, gender, physical condition or mental capacity. The laws protected perpetrators, not victims, there were no shelters, services, support, training or promises of restitution. It was called slavery, not modern, just slavery.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand the premise behind the term “modern-day slavery” but it is disingenuous at best, to give weight to words in theory, without understanding or recognizing the ramifications of their historical context. I have long said that Human Trafficking is not new, it is slavery revisited, reinvested and renamed, but the only thing modern about it, would be the implication that now it is a problem, because the women and girls largely recognized as victims and survivors have European features. Laws are often changed when those who make them become uncomfortable with the societal ills that begin to impact them personally.

Nelson Mandela, said “The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed.

The perception of modern-day slavery When most people hear the word human trafficking, it is almost always in connection to sex trafficking and tends to immediately invoke a strong emotional reaction of horror and disbelief. The visual perception of women and girls, with European features and as very young, being held captive and forced to engage in acts of sexual depravity and violence is unthinkable. People become even more horrified to learn that this is not just happening in some third world country, but right here in the U.S..

News articles, press conferences and information of coordinated law enforcement agency operations regarding human trafficking, dominate the media about white women and girls reported as runaways or missing, being lured through on-line exploitation and rescued at big sporting events, in hotels and from street-based prostitution. According to Natalie Wilson, co-Founder of The Black and Missing Foundation, 64,000 black women, girls and others are currently missing in the U.S., and yet it fails to make the headlines and sometimes even falls below the radar for law enforcement. Even more disturbing, is the reality that “anti-trafficking groups and policy makers continue to ignore the impact that race and racism play in domestic sex trafficking efforts which do not recognize minority youth as victims.”

Documentaries, movies, conferences, printed material and social media awareness campaigns, continue to keep the focus on shelters and organizations that gather substantial support and funding, while making headlines by incorporating survivors who have become the experts leading the charge for change, but rarely, if ever, do they have a hue to their skin. Not that they don’t exist, because history and truth tells us, WE most certainly do. But once again, another crisis thrives off misdirection, false perception and coded language “evidence based practice”, which is fundamentally derived from data of marginalized minority populations that have been hi-jacked by the mainstream, and successfully hood-winked the masked and disengaged. The scriptures says “my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

However, this does not begin to accurately depict the totality of all that is happening. The bias of information reported does not include the stories of men and boys, transgender and gender non-conforming youth and adults who are homeless, missing from Child Welfare Services, have aged-out of foster care systems and who are being exploited or sometimes self-exploiting as a means of survival with no third party involved in the transactions. Prostitution, on-line sexual exploitation, child sexual exploitation, pornography and commercial exploitation are fueled by demand; however, they are also fueled and sustained by societal factors that have been managed in silos, with no regard to systems that are vulnerable for human trafficking schemes. There are vast populations of people, (veterans, formerly incarcerated, the elderly and disabled, single mothers, homeless and minorities) who are vulnerable for human trafficking schemes, that don’t typically capture the headlines, and go unrecognized because human trafficking has been pigeon-hold by what sells (sex) what can be sensationalized (sex and girls), and what is driven largely by emotion (white).

Unfortunately, people are less emotional and horrified when they hear the words labor trafficking often relying on the preconceived notion or misinformation, that these people (who are of foreign descent), and in the United States illegally, have willingly contributed to their own circumstances. The interweaving of issues like immigration, dreamers, confinement camps, and the belief that these people are stealing jobs from Americans and should be thrown out of the country, are heavily threaded in conversations of outrage without empathy or facts. The disregard for victims who are exploited in educational institutions through criminal justice systems, commercial business and major league sports, only scratches the surface of what is not always happening in silence, thereby making all the purported efforts to end human trafficking, splintered and unrealistic.

picture of Vigilia por la liberación de las niñas secuestradas en nigeria por Boko Haram
Vigilia por la liberación de las niñas secuestradas en nigeria por Boko Haram. Source: HazteOir.org, Creative Commons.

A global crisis Several years ago more than 200 black girls kidnapped in Nigeria sparked the global campaign “Bring Back Our Girls” individuals, groups and organizations across the racial, cultural and social spectrum galvanized and spoke publicly about what was happening. The viral campaign put black faces front and center in every form of media and print for the first time in the U.S., and bridged the nexus of human trafficking and global human rights. Unfortunately, according to photographer Ami Vitale, photos that she took on behalf of the Alexia Foundation were used and misrepresented as some the images of girls who were not actual victims of Boko Haram, nor from Nigeria. As someone who has been professionally engaged with international countries working on human trafficking and human rights issues for several years, I fully support the global response, but one must take everything into account when being responsive and responsible. Americans can quickly become horrified and outraged at what happens abroad and we can interject ourselves and posture about the money we give for the human rights atrocities. We can feel free to boast of our successes in politics and in a democracy which allows “our people” freedom of speech, choice and opportunity. But when the mirror turns inward, and we see our reflection from where we stand, as citizens of the greatest nation on earth, how dare we spin and spew with audacity, when we can neither reconcile our history of the slavery or even our attempts with modern-day slavery.

Paradigm shift  When you peel back the layers of structural inequality and violence, and identify the amount of injustices that contributes to marginalized populations becoming victims, you can recognize the nexus of human trafficking and human rights. Mandela said, “to deny people their human rights, is to challenge their very humanity”.  Systems embedded in structural violence only exacerbate opportunities of exploitation for marginalized populations. Organized and non-organized schemes swell out of the vulnerabilities known by the oppressor (trafficker, pimp, exploiter) and experienced by their victims (men, women, children); economic segregation, lack of access to quality education, health and mental health disparities and inequities, food gaps and disparities, cultural adaptation to concentrated poverty, generational trauma and violence, drugs gangs and groups, criminal behavior, discriminatory practices that alienate people and allow increased opportunities for victimization –bullying and much more.

Eleanor Roosevelt believed, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world…Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere…”.

These are not new, nor are they beyond our control. But until we are committed to doing something that will make a substantive difference for all people and not just the select few and privileged, nothing will ever change. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

More than ever before, it is critically important for individuals representing the vast diversity of human beings in this country (African Americans, Latino/Hispanic, Native American/Alaskan Native and others) to lead, not just serve organizations. To establish shelters that provide and develop programs through a culturally competent lens for the delivery of trauma informed services and care, that address the specific needs of marginalized victims. It is imperative that we demand seats in greater numbers at the tables where decisions and policies are made with respect to human trafficking legislation, services, support, and funding.  The time for one or two just won’t do, especially when the data used to garner attention and make the case for funding, comes from the very population that is being ignored. It is vital that existing shelters not be given a pass because it’s the name everyone recognizes, or it’s the only facility that serves human trafficking victims. We must raise the bar, not lower it or we risk contributing to the re-victimization victims, damaging the reputation of worthy organizations and institutions, and opening the door for predators to prey on unsuspecting individuals and businesses within our communities. People often think someone else has done their due diligence by vetting and verifying organizations and shelters are operating ethically and with integrity, but that may not always be the case. Human Trafficking is all about money, it just depends whose on the receiving end. Robert G. Ingersoll asserts, “nothing discloses real character like the use of power…”

Consider This  People are looking for ways to become involved but before one does, I suggest pausing to turn down the background noise of hype and rhetoric that drives funding, volunteerism and emotions. Take the time to become fully knowledge about the issue of human trafficking, “modern-day slavery”, that has had a law for less than 20 years, that even seasoned professionals working in judiciary, law enforcement and victim service providers are still trying to understand how to respond to.

Recognize human trafficking is the new hot topic and cause, and do your own due diligence before you attach your time, talents and finances. Many people may also consider their faith, and although faith based shelters (mostly Christian), are popping up everywhere, you should be clear, that not every victim will be, nor should any person be coerced into religious practice. When a person is coerced to consider faith as a means of freedom and shelter, you have just infringed on their human rights and dignity.

Human trafficking is about the exploitation of the vulnerable and often uninformed. Predators both men and women, don’t have a certain look, and their demeanor is often not what one might expect. The same can be said of some survivors, who claims have been proven to be false or called into question.  You must decide. So, before you dive in and dig deep consider this!

Before you volunteer, ask questions What safety protocols do you have in place for staff, volunteers, victims/survivors? Are background checks conducted on ALL staff, volunteers, victims/survivors? What type of security do you have in place? Fencing, locked gates, guards etc.? Is the location of your facility known to the public? What safety measures do you have in place when and if a person leaves your facility to ensure that others do not find out the location? Have you ever had an incident where someone who was not authorized came to your facility? What is your rate of turn-over in staff, volunteers and victims/survivors?

Before you give, dig deep Board members are responsible for ensuring the organization is following all laws, run ethically and with integrity. So, asking for and reviewing a board’s 1099’s (GuideStar Nonprofit database) to see the names of members and have long they have served is information that you would want to know. Frequent and constant turn over should raise concern. In fact, frequent and constant turn over in staff, volunteers and even location should also raise a concern. It could be an indication of instability, financial integrity, compliance failure and even ethical reliability. How much have board members personally invested in the organization? How many victims/survivors are you currently serving, and how many have they served since the program began? How many licensed, qualified and paid, full-time staff do they have working with victims/survivors? This is an important question as to capacity and especially when it comes to transition shelters that house victims/survivors 24-hours, and drop-in shelters who may provide services and support during specified times and day. A facilities failure to have “paid” staff providing on-going professional services and support should send up a red-flag. And while it may seem like an extra step, provide your questions in writing and ask for an authorized representative to provide the information in writing, giving you time to review the answers and ask any potential additional questions later. Remember, no matter how small you give or how often you give, you have the right to know where and how your money is invested and the right to ask additional questions outside of the standard information they provide. Any organization that cannot provide you with what you require, doesn’t deserve what they are requesting. While these do not begin to exhaust the amount of questions and concerns that one should consider, this is a start.

Lealholm Bridge. Source: Red Rose Exile, Creative Commons.
Lealholm Bridge. Source: Red Rose Exile, Creative Commons.

The bridge I started out by talking about my perspective on the bridge between human trafficking, human rights and race in America. By now given the scale and what some might consider diatribe on the complexities and nuances surrounding these three topics, you may have stopped several times, considered clicking off all together, found yourself agreeing with some and disagreeing with other analysis. However, if you’ve made it this far, and I hope that you did, I also hope that you have come to realize that this is not easy, the bridge is broken and damaged in far too many places, it’s has a history of being unsteady and sometimes unreliable, it’s weak and in need of repair, but it’s what we have, until we come together to build a new one. You have now done what many of us who work on issues that impact social consciousness do every day, keep going. When it’s hard, heavy and sometimes unbearable, when the lie takes our breath away and the truth rips at our heart, when darkness gives more to our movements, than light gives to our moments. When we are crippled with fear, and yet continue to crawl, because we are survivors not merely by circumstance, but most assuredly by choice. We are destined to fight for victims, demand human dignity for survivors and seek a measure of justice where injustice reigns most supreme. We cross the spectrum of race, culture and ethnicity, we ask not for favors, but for the opportunity to bring every person’s reality into focus, so that they may become free. This is the bridge and I’m doing my part to help others cross it.

Invest wisely in the matters of change!” (literally and figuratively) – Sunny Slaughter

 

Sunnetta “Sunny” Slaughter is the CEO/Principal consultant for Sunny Slaughter Consulting, LLC . Slaughter is  subject matter expertise on human trafficking and intersecting crimes for a national and international clientele and serves as a policy strategist, facilitator, law enforcement instructor, expert, TEDx speaker and subject matter expert, across a broad spectrum of human rights, social justice and civil rights issues.

 

Additional resources:

UNODC

US State Department Annual Trafficking In Persons Report

Female Empowerment via the Internet

The Internet is a veritable minefield of content for women. For adolescent girls, as they begin to explore their freedom and independence, this boundless online environment contributes to their ability to educate themselves on women’s rights earlier than ever before. Online articles on topics from personal health to social change grant a generation of young girls access to an increased knowledge base for advocacy and protection. The Internet also empowers adult women through professional education, resources for help in dangerous situations, and access to communities that may be inaccessible in their areas. The United Nations’ Guidelines on Women’s Empowerment states, “‘Advancing gender equality and equity and the empowerment of women, and the elimination of all kinds of violence against women, and ensuring women’s ability to control their own fertility … are priority objectives of the international community’.”  Empowerment at any age is vital to women in a time where sexism is still very much alive. In communities that may be lack gender equality, girls can find ways to adapt and thrive.

picture of a girl at a laptop
Source: StartupStockPhotos, Creative Commons.

The internet equips adolescent girls with accurate information about puberty, sexual health, and reproduction in cultures where discussing reproductive health is forbidden. Menstruation, a taboo topic in many cultures, is often punishable by death. In Nepal, a practice called “chaupadi” has resulted in the deaths of many young women. Though outlawed, the practice involves banishing menstruating girls from their homes because they are viewed as “impure and treated as untouchable,” according to the New York Times. Forced to live in tiny, poorly constructed sheds for the duration of their menstrual cycle, girls often die from animal attacks, exposure, or suffocation from lighting a fire without proper ventilation.

In an example more familiar to Americans, Donald Trump recently commented on a female reporter by saying, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Though he later claimed that he was referring to her nose, the implication that periods contribute to irrationality garnered notice by much of the audience. Periods have long been used as evidence to block women from certain professions and fields. Some may recall a similar quote by Edgar Berman, claiming women were incapable of wielding political power because of “the raging hormonal imbalance of the periodic lunar cycle.” In direct response to Trump’s comment, social media created a campaign called #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult to empower menstruating females and erase the stigma of periods.

The online availability of domestic violence resources as proven crucial in the empowerment of women. The resources help save the lives of women in abusive relationships, including finding an escape from dangerous situations. Women are empowered to use  resources like the “safety exit” feature on many sites, which exits the site with a click of a button if their abuser is nearby, as exhibited on the National Coalition against Domestic Violence’s website. The ability for victims of abuse to find a support network is invaluable. In cases of those escaping situations where abusers left them isolated and degraded, many victims felt helpless and alone until they find an online outlet. At the same time, these websites also offer help to victims of human trafficking. Online tip centers and hotline databases can bring justice to numerous women.

a picture of a girl asking the audience to help prevent domestic violence
Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons.

Online resources have been an avenue in providing an education outside of a traditional classroom. Women, previously hindered and halted in completing a college degree, now have the opportunity to enroll and graduate from online universities. Online education contributes to the empowerment of people with disabilities and social disorders. People with disabilities can find relief from an unaccommodating and inaccessible university through online classes. Women living with anxiety or sleep disorders can obtain educations without worrying about attendance or overwhelming social environments.

Finally, universal access to online communities is perhaps the most significant contribution to empowerment across genders, races, cultures, abilities, and sexualities. In societies that often silences minority voices, the ability to share your voice and connect with like-minded individuals is invaluable for both community and individual well-being. For example, the platform of Twitter has been a vital resource to the black community. According to the Pew Research Center, 40% of young African Americans online are on Twitter — more than 12% higher than the rate reported by young white Internet users. Jenna Worthan of Smithsonian Magazine writes an illuminating article on the relevance of Black twitter, saying in part that “black Twitter—and the Black Lives Matter activists who famously harnessed it—have created a truly grassroots campaign for social change unlike anything in history.” Beyond the activism aspect, a subject I wrote about in an earlier blog post, the beauty of Black Twitter is the visible, dynamic communal dialogue that allows white Americans a insight into the humanity and brilliance of a minority population.

The LGBTQ+ community also offers a vibrant insight into their culture through their online presence, while also extending support to people who are exploring their identities. Media platforms such as Tumblr gave rise to a vigorous culture of support for disabled people, giving hope and survival tips to afflicted individuals. Searching for the terms “disabled,” “chronic illness,” or “spoonie” (referring to spoon theory, which refers to a disability metaphor of how energy is dispensed through the day for chronically ill people) results in a plethora of supportive and potentially life-changing results. Increased visibility for these marginalized communities improves both how society perceives the group overall and each individual members’ well-being.

a picture of four Black women with t-shirts that read respect me, protect me, support me, and hear me.
Source: Flicker, Creative Commons

I am personally familiar with how valuable the Internet can be in advocating for and understanding human rights. Growing up in Alabama, where Southern culture can be particularly toxic to young girls, it was on social media sites that I was exposed to new viewpoints and gained access to social justice-related literature. I followed accounts and blogs run by marginalized members of society that I never had met in my predominantly white, able-bodied, middle-class hometown. I was able to discover my own identity and find how I fit in within these communities. Without access to the online communities where marginalized people freely and comfortably discussed their issues, I might be the same socially ignorant person that I was before I found online educational resources. I am certain that having access to the voices of people of color, LGBTQ individuals, persons with disabilities, and other groups has made me the person I am today: a passionate activist for all marginalized communities, whether I am a part of them or not.

Refugees Crisis: Who are refugees and who should help them?

I can remember a few years ago, after hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, the term ‘refugee’ was used to describe victims in New Orleans. Civil rights activists in America were noticeably upset because of the negative connotation and mental image generated with the use of the term. Rev. Al Sharpton, in an NPR interview shortly after hurricane Katrina, commented, “They are not refugees wandering somewhere looking for charity. They are victims of neglect and a situation they should have never been put in in the first place.” Could the same thing be said for people fleeing persecution, civil war, and conflict?

When you hear the word refugee what image comes to mind? According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk. The agency established the Convention Related to the Status of Refugees in 1951 to aid the more than 1 million people who were still displaced from World War II.

Photo taken by Charles Coleman
Zabia and Firas Attar. Photo taken by Charles Coleman

The increase in conflicts and civil wars in Africa and the Mediterranean have created a refugee crisis that is threatening international security. We have to ask ourselves, “who are refugees and who is responsible to care for the millions of people who are fleeing imminent danger”? Today, refugees around the globe number more than 20 million people. According to data compiled by UNHCR, half of these refugees hail from 3 states: Somalia, Afghanistan, and Syria. The number of refugees continues to grow. This crisis has created an atmosphere whereby countless human rights violations occur on a daily basis; however, policymakers and politicians seem to focus on the affects the numbers of people will have on their population, rather than on the wellbeing of those seeking asylum or refugee status. On November 16, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter led a panel discussion that provided faculty and students with an opportunity to hear from experts who have intimate knowledge of this global crisis, including two personal testimonies, in an effort to bring understanding and ensure clear background information on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean is communicated.

Zabia and Firas Attar are siblings and Syrian refugees living in Birmingham. They shared their harrowing story of escape from Syria, and their  elation at arriving to safety  in America.  Elation turned to fear  when  calls from Governor Bentley and other state officials who believe that an influx of refugees would threaten Alabama residents. Refugees are not in America to destroy our way of life. They are hard working individuals who want the same things that you and I want— to live in peace and provide for our families.

Panelists. Photo by Charles Coleman.
Photo by Charles Coleman.

Catherine Philips Crowe, director of UAB International Student and Scholar Services, Dr. Serena Simoni, associate professor of political science at Samford University, and Dr. Abidin Yildirim. associate professor, UAB School of Engineering presented insights on how the refugees in the Mediterranean from countries like Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria, are impacting the populations of Italy, Germany, Australia and the United States. As an international community, it is understood that the responsibility to protect people of every state from harm when their country is unwilling or unable to do so belongs to all of us. While images of refugees such as Omran Daqneesh litter the Internet, you or me could have been born into a similar situation.

 

 

The Post-Election World: Emotional Responses an to Unexpected Win

Subway post-it notes. Source: Cait Stewart, Creative Commons.
Subway post-it notes. Source: Cait Stewart, Creative Commons.

Responses to the shocking election have been varied. The backlash has been deeply emotional and carried out in both online and public arenas. All over the country and world, people have responded to the results of the election with intense fear and shock. Some, of course, were elated by their own party’s win, but most have some concerns about the controversial figure’s rise to power. As the first President-Elect with no military or political experience, the world has hung in suspense to see if his actions will change due to his new position.  The post-election period has been filled with stress and grief; those who found online activism to be no longer useful, have taken to public outlets: protests, works of art, and wearing certain items in public to send a message.

The safety pin trend is one of the most widespread and also widely criticized. In case you’ve seen people wearing safety pins on their lapels and not understood, here’s the premise: You attached a safety pin to your shirt to show that you are a “safe” person to talk to; you are an ally to marginalized peoples and are showing your support of their rights in the wake of the present uncertainty. However well-intentioned this may be, these same marginalized populations that this movement was intended to support are critical of it. Critics of the safety pin movement say that showing allyship should not be limited to safety pins. Valeriya Safronova of the New York Times says, “Some Twitter users voiced criticisms of the safety-pin trend, calling it “slacktivism,” a word that blends “slacker” and “activism.” They expressed concern that wearing something doesn’t equate to action.” It still is a valid effort and perhaps gives hope that there are still people who are passionately pro-human rights when the country seems to have voted in opposition of those values.

Put a Pin In It. Source: Mike Licht, Creative Commons.
Put a Pin In It. Source: Mike Licht, Creative Commons.

Matthew Chavez’s art installation in New York City subway tunnels has been well-received. Chavez started writing Post-It notes with reactions to the election, and was soon joined by thousands of others. The notes range from angry to hopeful, but all give some sense of relief to those who feel too overwhelmed to engage in other forms of political conversation. The project is called “Subway Installation” and is mindful of the station’s workers, removing all notes from the walls before the day is over. Such a visible reminder of emotional  sentiment gives some relief to those who felt disregarded by the election’s results.

Protests have been the most controversial of these outlets. According to Washington Post, more than 225 people have been arrested nationally during these protests, most of which have taken place on college campuses. Riot gear and tactics have been deployed nationwide, including tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets. Conservatives have criticized these riots ceaselessly and call for their end. The nation will likely experience various forms of protests over the next four years, as this election was a particularly nasty and hard-hitting one. Unlike most elections in our nation’s history, the divide on the issues is so that many minorities believe their rights, liberties, and wellbeing is at stake. As the President-Elect has continually dialed back on his previously controversial opinions (such as his declaration to jail Hillary Clinton), the nation may find more relief than expected.

SPEAK OUT Rally at Inner Harbor in Baltimore MD on Thursday night, 10 November 2016. Source: Elvert Barnes, Creative Commons.
SPEAK OUT Rally at Inner Harbor in Baltimore MD on Thursday night, 10 November 2016. Source: Elvert Barnes, Creative Commons.

 

 

 

Threads in American Tapestry: Asylum Seekers and Refugees

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Ilhan Omar. Source: Lorie Shaull, Creative Commons.

Ilhan Omar is a Minnesota state representative. She is the first American lawmaker of Somali descent. She is a former refugee. Omar and her family fled Somalia during the civil war and lived in a Kenyan refugee camp for four years before emigrating to the United States in 1995. Wearing a white hijab, Omar who is Muslim, declared in her victory speech that “this was a victory for every person that’s been told they have limits on their dreams. Our campaign has been about more than just uniting a district, more than winning back the House, more than making history. Our campaign has been about shifting narratives, restoring hope and re-establishing access in our democracy.” Her victory reminded me to ignore political and xenophobic rhetoric, and search to better understand the lives of asylum seekers and refugees in order to place them in a position of honor for what they have endured and overcome in pursuing a new life for themselves and their families.

Asylum seekers and refugees are often on the receiving end of a disqualifying international narrative, rooted in half-truths and innuendos. In her address at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Samantha Power remarked that “people do not become refugees by choice, obviously; they flee because their lives are at risk – just as we would do if we found ourselves in such a situation. And most want to go home.” The current discourse of asylum and refugee status has brought about some confusion, given the misconception that the terms are interchangeable. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” An asylum seeker or ‘prima facie’ refugee is a person who seeks safety from persecution or serious harm in another country and awaits a decision on the application for refugee status under relevant international and national instruments. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states that there is a system which determines who qualifies for international protection; an interview is a key part of the process that is often negated given the swells of people crossing a border. For many who seek asylum, the first step in the process is generally a placement in detention.

Michael Welch insists that detention is the harshest act of punishment a state can inflict on people, and that seriousness increases if persons are escaping persecution rather than being held for criminal or immigration offenses. Chico Harlan reports that immigration detention is a billion-dollar industry in America. President Obama closed a detention facility in Taylor, Texas in 2008 because children were imprisoned and limited to play. Yet, in response to the “porous state of the nation’s border”, the administration implemented a tougher stance that changed the policies and empowered the Corrections Corporation of America to build the country’s largest immigration detention center in Dilley, Texas. The 2400 bed facility is home to thousands of asylum seekers as they work their way through the immigration process.

Asylum seekers are individuals or families in crisis, yet they are often treated as criminals. The women and children at the Dilley detention facility arrived at the border in search of the American value of welcoming those fleeing violence. Their hope is for hospitality and refuge; instead they describe their detention experience as worse than the abuse and violence they fled. Human rights violations and the fleeing from persecution go hand in hand as Gil Loescher explains. He writes that some find the protection they need while others find themselves victims in exile; many at the hands of the governments from whom they are longing to gain compassion.

City residents who live outside the walls of the detention center in Dilley, Texas assume that those dwelling in the center have a nice existence. However, those who have been released revealed their treatment included sleep deprivation, sleeping on cold floors, feelings of prolonged imprisonment, and not receiving an opportunity to appeal to a judge. Children should only be held in detention for up to 20 days. On average, according to the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), “asylum seekers are mandatorily detained pending a DHS [Department of Homeland Security] determination of their ‘credible fear’ of persecution upon return. This detention lasts an average of 27 days, including the time it takes to ascertain whether they have a “credible fear,” and to decide whether those found to have a credible fear should be “paroled” (released) while they pursue political asylum.” In Berks County, Pennsylvania, at least three families have been detained for nearly one year, forcing the women to initiate a hunger strike in protest for their release. Additionally, Nauru and Manus Island off the coast of Australia, asylum seekers spend an average of 450 days in detention. The detention of asylum seekers as an anti-terrorist or immigration strategy is a blatant disregard for international law. Human Rights Watch reported that on July 24, 2015, US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the Obama administration was committed to making considerable changes to the family immigration detention process.  

The Australian government in late October 2016 announced new legislation banning asylum seekers–who arrived by boat since July 2013–entrance to the country, in any capacity. Government officials believe the “law change was necessary to support key government border protection policies, including temporary protection visas, regional processing and boat turnbacks.” Australia’s new policy shines light on the underworld of asylum seeking: human trafficking and smuggling. The UNHCR reports that nearly 34,000 people (or the population of Vestavia Hills, Alabama in 2014) are forced to flee their homes every day because of conflict and persecution. Desperate and vulnerable, those who are unable to find refuge in neighboring countries seek out other means–smuggling and trafficking—to get across borders, thus circumventing border patrols and the proper immigration process. Human trafficking and smuggling presents additional problems if a victim is caught. Loescher believes that international laws have to be adjusted, if not created, because the flows of those seeking refuge have been unprecedented. “This is not because there were no refugees; numerous acts of persecution and expulsion accompanied the rise of the modern state of Europe and elsewhere. Only in the twentieth century when refugee flows exploded and came to be regarded as a threat, were legal and institutional responses developed…” The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as

“…[a person] owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. In the case of a person who has more than one nationality, the term “the country of his nationality” shall mean each of the countries of which he is a national, and a person shall not be deemed to be lacking the protection of the country of his nationality if, without any valid reason based on well-founded fear, he has not availed himself of the protection of one of the countries of which he is a national.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 65.3 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide, or the current population of the United Kingdom.

Refugee Camp. Source: tpsdave, Creative Commons.
Refugee Camp. Source: tpsdave, Creative Commons.

Forced migration is a political, economic, and security concern; more than that, it is a human rights issue that should be treated as a humanitarian crisis. Refugees International provides recommendations and solutions which identify needs for basic services such as food, water, and protection from harm. Presently of the 21.3 million refugees in the world, 39% are being hosted in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Turkey has received 2.5 million. As a means of housing the multitudes, many governments have set up encampment sites. Dadaab in Kenya–home to nearly 300,000–is the world’s largest refugee camp. Unfortunately, as Loescher points out, the exile violates the numerous statues in the 1951 Refugee Convention, namely freedom from movement and wage-earning employment. The limitations cripple the family from creating a dignified life in a new country. Additionally, because refugee camps are established by the government, they can be closed and destroyed like Moria in Lesbos, Greece and ‘The Jungle’, in Calais, France. Both camps have been destroyed by fire, forcing thousands of refugees to flee once again.

Refugees have no state rights. Their country rights were forfeited when they fled their home country. Fortunately, the 1951 Refugee Convention stipulates that first and foremost, a refugee should not be returned to a country where there are threats to their life or freedom. This is the principle of non-refoulement. It also states that refugees must have access to courts, employment and education, and other social and civil rights afforded to the host country’s citizens. This year, the United States has admitted 10,000 Syrian refugees and 38,901 Muslim refugees. Earlier this month, it was announced that approximately 1,200 asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus Island will make their home in America during 2017. Many have been vocal about the perceived threat and the uncertainty about the adaptability of these newcomers to American life. However, the two year screening and resettlement process and the success story of Ilhan Omar, Madeleine Albright, Marlene Dietrich, and Albert Einstein should prove to contradict naysayers, giving voice to the tremendous contribution asylum seekers and refugees have brought and continue to bring to the United States when provided an opportunity to become a part of the fabric of our society rather than a stain on it.

 

 

Islamophobia: A Threat to All

Source: Daniel Zanini H., Creative Commons
Source: Daniel Zanini H., Creative Commons

 

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet Dalia Mogahed, Research Director at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). She delivered a powerful speech at UAB’s Hill University Center about an issue that has plagued American society for many years, Islamophobia.

Islamophobia, as Dalia Mogahed defines it, is “anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination based on an irrational hatred and fear of Islam”. According to a new report generated by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the University of California, Berkeley, over $200 million dollars is spent annually to perpetuate this fear, which is evidenced by the tone and volume of reporting about Muslims. Nearly 80% of the media coverage about Islam is negative portraying Muslims as more dangerous than countries armed with nuclear weapons, drug addiction, or diseases such as cancer. As Americans, it is important that we seek out facts and form our own opinions rather than bending to the bias of others. Prejudice of any kind is a problem that affects all Americans by threatening our safety and way of life.

Islamophobia lecture.
Islamophobia lecture. Photo credit: Charles Coleman.

According to an ISPU report, Islamophobia is a gateway to other types of discrimination such as anti-Semitism, human rights violations, and anti-rights legislation. For example, Mogahed mentions the recently released Community Brief “Manufacturing Bigotry”. In that study, researchers find that legislators who promote Islamophobic agendas are 80% more likely to support anti-foreign legislation, voter identification mandates, and limitations on immigration and oppose women’s rights, access to abortion, and same-sex marriage – all laws empowering groups marginalized in the political process. She points out that

“fear erodes freedom, which is the foundation of our democracy”

and makes us more accepting of authoritarianism, conformity, and prejudices.

Each of these limiting ideas makes all Americans less safe. In fact, according to a recent report generated by Freedom house, the perpetuation of Islamaphobia aids the rise of terrorist rhetoric and opens the door for extremist ideology. One example Mogahed provided is a recruitment tape released by Al-Shabaab, a Somali terrorist group. In this clip, terrorists use an audio excerpt from one of presidential nominee Donald Trumps rants to push their Islamist views and label American society as racist.

What can we as Americans do about this and how can we protect our freedom and ideals? Mogahed states that we need to educate ourselves and replace our fears with facts. According to Martin Scott, author of the journal “Catholics and the Ku Klux Klan”, nearly a century ago this same scenario presented itself, but it was Catholicism that was the recipient of discrimination and prejudice perpetuated by groups like the True Americans and Ku Klux Klan.

Source: Keoni Cabral, Creative Commons
Source: Keoni Cabral, Creative Commons

 

Today, we need to understand who American Muslims are and how they help shape the diversity of our nation. American Muslims are not only Arab. In fact most are African American, Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic. According to Mogahed, Muslims are the most likely group to reject military attacks on civilians, and contrary to popular belief those that attend the masjid or “mosque” are the most likely to be engaged in community and civic activities, not radical Islam.

American Muslims, on the whole, retain strong simultaneous American and Muslim identities and want to work to protect the American way of life.

Therefore, it is our duty to help Muslims protect their identity by not associating every Muslim with ISIS or other radical Islamist factions.  If we learn about Islam and get to know the Muslims in our community we will see that they are normal people who are more disgusted with radical Islamic ideology than anyone else because they are the group that is most affected by the actions of radical Islamist groups. I have traveled across the globe and met many Muslims along the journey. They would all agree that there is nothing worse than the killing of innocent people and any individual who condones these acts of violence does not represent normative Islam and its values. To protect our American way of life we have to move past the unfair framing of all Muslims as terrorists. Mogahed advises that we need to create strong diverse coalitions that protect human rights, and religious freedoms to build a stronger more pluralistic America. We have to challenge bigotry by calling out prejudices when we see them. At the same time, we need to not be afraid to call out anti-Muslim bias in media coverage, not shy away from having difficult conversations challenging prejudice, preach outside the choir and vote for government representatives who will uphold American values as opposed to letting fear dictate policy.

IHR Director Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter with speaker Dalia Mogahed.
IHR Director Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter with speaker Dalia Mogahed.