The Future of Abortion Laws in the United States

The Texas Abortion Law, signed into law on May 19th, 2021, went into effect earlier this September, effectively banning abortions after the detection of fetal heartbeat. This law makes no exceptions even for victims of rape or incest. 

Previous abortion bills introduced the state government and authorities to enforce abortion laws, but unlike anything seen before, Texas’s law awards the power to the citizens. Any private citizen in the country now has every right to sue anyone they suspect has had an abortion, took part in helping with an abortion, or in any way assisted an individual seeking an abortion in Texas. If the suit succeeds, the citizen will receive monetary compensation of at least $10,000. The intricacies of this law make it difficult to legally interpret since technically, abortion has not been criminalized.

History of the Heartbeat Bill 

In 1973, the landmark Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade federally legalized abortion in the first two trimesters of pregnancy but allowed states to ban abortion in the 3rd trimester. Since then, several state legislatures have passed so-called “heartbeat bills,” which criminalize abortions after fetal cardiac activity has been detected—usually at 6 weeks. However, this is only a flutter of electricity, and the heart forms only after 17-18 weeks. Most individuals do not even know that they are pregnant at this point, because birth control, other forms of contraception, or not tracking menstrual cycles can mask pregnancies until the 8th week. 

Up until now, the Supreme Court has adamantly upheld Roe vs Wade, and every state abortion ban signed into law has been struck down in federal courts. In a historic decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled to let Texas temporarily implement its Abortion Law Although the decision was made in consideration of the difficulty interpreting the law by the Constitution, the hesitancy has been raising alarms all over the country. 

During the Former President’s term, 2 conservative justices replaced the deceased Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia—tipping the balance of opinion from liberal to conservativeThe new Supreme Court, with the power to influence landmark judicial decisions and history for the next century has many human rights and women’s rights activists seeing it as a threat to the well-being of the country. Reversing all or part of Roe vs. Wade will start an ethical slippery slope that some fear could lead to restrictions on contraception and women’s health services. 

Historic Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. pictured
Source: Unsplash; The Supreme Court Justices hear cases and make their decisions here at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Abortion as a Human Right 

The United Nations affirms that access to safe and legal abortions is a fundamental human right. It is not only crucial to ending discrimination against women but also to protect women’s health. The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHR) states that restriction abortion bans violate basic “right[s] to health, privacy, and in certain cases, the right to be free from cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.” 

Despite the common misconception that abortion restrictions reduce abortions, they only increase unsafe abortions. Women and young girls use dangerous methods such as toxic chemicals, bodily harm, and relying on unlicensed abortion providers in their desperation to terminate a pregnancy. In fact, in the United States, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) found that over 1.2 million women had unsafe abortions which resulted in nearly 5000 deaths, not including tens of thousands more left with long-term injuries and complications.  

Depicts Abortion Rights protesters
Source Unsplash: Protestor holding up a placard stating “Protect Roe” in an October 2021 protest against Anti- Abortion Laws.

Women in Texas Now

The state has clearly indicated that the law is “not against women” but against abortion providers who are breaking the law. 

Already, women in Texas are traveling out to liberal states such as California or New York to get their abortions. The influx of cases has overburdened providers in other states, but even still, those who make it out of state to receive an abortion at least have the option. The majority of women, however, do not have the means or funds to obtain an abortion in another state, so they turn to abortion pills to self-induce abortions. This method has its own problems. The pills can get stuck in customs anywhere from 2 to 30 days which adds to the anxiety of pregnant individuals, because the pills must be taken before 10 weeks of gestation to avoid life-threatening complications such as massive hemorrhaging.  

Political Reaction 

The Texas Abortion Ban symbolizes the modern bodily autonomy movement on a precipice. Based on the Supreme Court’s current balance, it is possible that Roe vs. Wade could be struck down within the next two years. One thing must be made clear though: overturning Roe vs. Wade means that abortion will only become illegal within states that have chosen to do so—not across the country.  

However, another aspect to consider about the abortion rights debate is voice. Women and minorities are more empowered than four decades earlier and have the platform to fight for their beliefs. In fact, 77% of people want the Supreme Court to uphold Roe vs. Wade. If Roe vs. Wade is overturned, an unprecedented amount of public outcry will occur in every state to fight, once again, for the right to bodily autonomy that women have fought for decades. 

Billboard titled "Forward Together for Abortion Justice"
Source: Unsplash; An Abortion Rights billboard titled “Forward Together for Abortion Justice” at a protest in October 2021.

Future

Later this year, the Federal Courts will hear Mississippi’s case to let their heartbeat law stand for 15 weeks. More conservative states will likely use Texas’s law to support their legislations. Thus, the outcome of these hearings will give the country an understanding of how the federal judicial system will respond to future abortion and women’s health legislation. 

The Supreme Court’s ability to protect abortion rights is being tested, but according to the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, the responsibility may be passed to Congress instead of staying with the courts.  

In the Senate and House of Representatives sits a bill titled the Women’s Health Protection Act, which could provide universal abortion rights and remove the damaging restrictions women are subjected to for abortions. One of the goals of women’s rights activists is to see this bill passed in Congress, and the time has come for Congress and the Executive Branch to collaborate and alleviate any detrimental decision that the judicial system may make. The public can help with this goal by proactively voting for legislators that will turn bills into reality and supporting many nonprofit organizations and charities such as NARAL Pro-Choice American and Planned Parenthood through volunteer work or donations.  

The Missing Case of Gabby Petito and the Cases of Missing Indigenous Women

Missing flyer of Gabby Petito depicting a picture of Gabby with the hashtag of America's daughter
Yahoo Images

On September 11, Gabby Petito, a young white woman who was travelling in a van and recording videos about her life with her boyfriend, was reported missing by her family. Petito’s popularity on YouTube and Tik Tok helped the story circulate like wildfire with true crime podcasts , national news channels , and intense investigation from officials and the general public. The fervent public engagement and dedication of investigative officials lead to Petito’s remains being discovered in less than a month in Wyoming. Within the last nine years 710 indigenous people, mainly women, have disappeared in the same area where Petito was found, and most cases have remained unresolved. Where was their national media coverage? Currently, 64,000 Black women are declared missing within America, but where is their media attention and public outcry? The case of Gabby Petito is an unfortunate situation and deserves to have the proper investigative force behind it. However, we must ask ourselves why cases like Petito’s, usually young white women gain the most awareness, while women of color, like indigenous women are often ignored on a local and national level. The power of the media and public opinion is significant. The interest of the public has been able to reopen cases and even apprehend criminals. Public outcry has secured justice for victims and their families,  which is recognition and treatment that indigenous women often lack.

Indigenous women with red hand painted over the mouth, presenting the voiceless and missing indigenous women
Yahoo images

The Mary Johnson Case 

On November 25, 2020 Mary Johnson, an indigenous woman of the Tulalip Tribe, went missing while walking to a friend’s house in Washington state. Over the span of 10 months, the search for Johnson involved a billboard on the interstate and local media coverage, which resulted in little development towards finding or arresting the perpetrator behind her disappearance. Local tribal police efforts have not recovered Mary Johnson’s body and have not made any arrests, despite having identified multiple people of interest.  

Why has such little investigative action occurred over such a long period of time? Abigail Echo-Hawk, chief research officer for the Seattle Indian Health Board, states that investigation by law enforcement is often delayed due to the “maze of jurisdiction” in the local county. The boundaries among the authorities overseeing the case must be distinguished between the federal government, state government, and the tribal police, this process is often complicated by the complex procedures of bureaucracy. Additionally, tribal authorities often lack jurisdiction or are limited in their ability to prosecute non-Native people for crimes committed on tribal land. The federal government, which carries the authority of persecution, often does not offer its services. The competence and empathy that Mary Johnson and her family deserve was undercut by governmental and legislative administrations who focused on avoiding responsibility rather than seeking justice, for Mary Johnson. Cases such as Mary Johnson continue to emulate the numerous, and neglected cases of missing indigenous women.  

Banner with the words "No more Stolen Sisters" at a protest for missing indigenous women
Yahoo Images

The Disparities in Media Attention and Investigation 

The discrepancy in the media treatment and public awareness of missing white women compared to missing women of color, including indigenous women, is referred to as “missing white woman syndrome.” The Lucchesi Sovereign Bodies Institute reports that from 2000 to 2009 local and state media covered 18% of homicide cases related to indigenous women and 50% of homicide cases related to white victims. The reporting of cases between white and indigenous victims is even dependent on the status of the victim, whether they are dead or alive. The Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center reports that white people are more likely to have an article written about them while they are still alive. Approximately 76% of articles written about white victims are published while the victim is still alive, but 42% of articles written about indigenous victims are written after the indigenous victim is found dead. Indigenous people are more likely to have an article written on them if they were found dead with 57% of articles being on indigenous missing people, but no articles about white missing persons which displays that white missing persons receive media recognition in a timely manner, before the victim has been found dead. The underrepresentation of indigenous women within media is alarming considering how there have been 5,712 missing cases since 2016, .  

The lack of awareness and ignorance surrounding the numerous cases of missing  indigenous women is ironic considering how indigenous women are at higher risk for acts of violence and should receive more awareness and protections. In fact, American Indian and Alaskan Native women living on tribal lands are murdered at rates more than ten times the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Publicity around these cases is crucial because these cases are not simply cases of missing people, but also cases of domestic violence, homicide, sexual assault, and sex trafficking which are rampant issues within indigenous communities. Compared to their white counterparts, indigenous women are 1.7 times more likely to experience violence, and 2 times more likely to be raped. More than half of indigenous women have experienced sexual violence (56.1%) and have been physically abused by their partners (55.5%). These acts of violence intrinsically violate and disregard the human right for indigenous women to exist in peace and security. Systematically, the safety and protection of indigenous women is neglected and allowed to continuously occur without intervention from the United States government.  

Why is there a Gap?  

Indigenous women’s rights advocates argue that indigenous women are often blamed for their own disappearances, thus resulting in a lack of empathy and effort from officials, media, and the public. 

Echo-Hawk, Seattle Indian Health Board chief research officer states that, “They’re [indigenous women] assumed to have run away, have substance abuse issues, or done something that justified them going missing or being murdered.”

Due to such prejudice and bias from authorities, the crucial initial period of search for a missing person is often lost because of the dismissal of families’ concern and refusal of investigative officers to report an indigenous woman is missing. Echo-Hawks details the common scenario as victim blaming where authorities ask questions like, “Did she run away? Was she out drinking?” and then dismiss family member concerns by saying their loved one will likely just come home in a couple of days. 

Beyond the biases of local authorities, such victim blaming can manifest into negative character framing within media coverage further leading to poor incentive for authorities and the public to display concern and initiative in resolving cases and serving justice for missing indigenous women. The Governor’s Taskforce on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons reports that 16% of articles about indigenous people involves negative character framing, emphasizing negative aspects of the victim’s life, family, and community that are unrelated to the crime itself.   

founders and members of the Na’ah Illahee fund
Yahoo Images
How can you help? 

The negligence of authorities and lack of media attention isolates Indigenous families in their search for their missing family member. 

A Seattle Native-led nonprofit Na’ah Illahee (NIF) launched the “Red Blanket Fund,” to provide support for families of missing and murdered Indigenous people. You can donate to Na’ah Illahee and other organizations like it. Additional organizations include, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA and  National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center 

Improper Sex Education and the Effects on Women’s Health in Alabama

 

Three Condoms Side-By-Side
Yahoo Images, three condoms side-by-side

Sex Education in the United States

In the United States sex education has historically been underfunded and often used as a tool to shame people for their sexuality. Currently, only 29 states in the United States mandate sex education; however, this still does not ensure that children are taught medical sex education in school. In fact, 37 states within the United States require abstinence to be taught as the only way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy. Even worse, up until April 2021, seven states in the South prohibited educators from discussing LGBTQ+ identities and relationships, which further stigmatizes youth and puts them at a higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Currently, now that Alabama has passed a new bill which removed homophobic language forbidding schools from teaching LGBTQ+ sex education, teachers are able to create sex education curriculum as they please, as long as parents are sent an overview of the curriculum and agree to let their children learn said material.

How U.S. Sex Education Policies Measure Up to the ICPD

According to the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), “ the objective to achieve universal access to quality education, underlines that gender-sensitive education about population issues, including reproductive choices and responsibilities and sexually transmitted diseases, must begin in primary school and continue through all levels of formal and non-formal education to be effective.” The ICPD further notes that “full attention should be given to the promotion of mutually respectful and equitable gender relations and particularly to meeting the educational and service needs of adolescents to enable them to deal in a positive and responsible way with their sexuality.” When looking at the rights set forth by the ICPD, it becomes clear that the United States is failing their youth populations and exposes them to unnecessary risk by refusing to inform them of the dangers that come with unprotected sex. By not requiring sex education, the United States also fails to inform youth of preventative measures they can take to ensure the utmost safety and consensual enjoyment between parties. This lack of education has not only resulted in a multitude of unwanted pregnancies and an overflooded foster care system; but has led to thousands of people, especially in the South, contracting chronic disease and illness that will impair them for the rest of their lives as well. 

Women’s Healthcare in Alabama: The Dangers of Improper Sex Education

While the United States as a whole has failed its constituency by refusing to mandate sexual education to be taught in schools, the state of Alabama stands as a paradigm for just how dangerous a lack of healthy and inclusive sex education can be. According to Human Rights Watch, the lack of sex education in Alabama has led to relatively high mortality rates. These “mortality rates are higher for Black women, poor women, and those who lack access to health insurance.”  In fact,  according to the CDC, in 2017, Alabama was among the top five states in the country in terms of the highest rate of cervical cancer cases and deaths, and “Black women in Alabama are nearly twice as likely to die of the disease as white women.” While multiple factors are contributing to this alarming statistic, Human Rights Watch found the following issues to be catalysts for these poor outcomes in Alabama: “shortage of gynecologists in rural areas, prohibitive transportation costs often required to travel to see a doctor for follow-up testing and treatment, and Alabama’s failure to expand Medicaid to increase healthcare coverage for poor and low-income individuals in the state”.  By refusing to provide access to healthy sex education, Alabama has left thousands of women without the proper knowledge that is necessary to lower the risk of cervical cancer. 

A mother and her child during a pediatric check-up
Yahoo Images, a mother and her child photographed during a pediatric check-up

The Current State of Sex Education in Alabama 

In Alabama, the current state code claims that abstinence outside of marriage is the “social norm”. By making non-marital sex an abnormality, the legislatures have shown that they have no interest in providing education to youth who may break the “social norm”. Moreover, in the past, Alabama code emphasized that sexual curriculum had to be presented in a “factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state”. By painting non-heteronormative orientation as “criminal” Alabama consciously stigmatized members of the LGBTQ community for decades, which put them at a higher risk of contracting a chronic disease. In fact, according to SIECUS, Alabama ranked fourth in the nation for reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis in youth aged 15-19. Yet, thanks to activists and constituents voicing their concerns, the Alabama legislature has now removed said discriminatory language from their sex education bill. However, there is still a large amount of work that must be done to further advocate for proper, medical sex education to be provided to students. 

Yahoo Images, A woman is holding a poster which states “A woman’s place is in the resistance”
Yahoo Images, A woman is holding a poster which states “A woman’s place is in the resistance”

Ways to Get Involved

Thanks to the work of activists, legislatures, and constituents alike, Alabama’s laws have been updated so that they no longer criminalize LGBTQ+ individuals within the states schools’ sex education curriculum. Yet, the work is not over, and schools are still able to refuse to educate students on safe sex practices for non-heteronormative relationships, as long as parents of students consent to the curriculum proposed by staff. This continuation of the lack of medical sex education in our school systems is still leaving children vulnerable to ignorance, and exacerbating the current health issues which are prevalent amongst marginalized groups, especially within the South. Certain organizations, such as the Alabama Campaign for Adolescent Sexual Health and Advocates for Youth Sex Education, are currently advocating for proper sex education. If you are interested in getting involved, sign up to be an advocate for proper seed education through AMAZE, or with WISE (Working to Institutionalize Sex Education), to help aid in the fight for proper sexual education for our youth. Furthermore, if you would like to learn more about the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals and current issues within the LGBTQ+ community, then click this link.

The Realities of Being Homeless in America

An image portraying an encampment under a bridge
Source: Yahoo Images; People experiencing homelessness sleeping under a bridge

The homeless population in America tends to be neglected by the society they live in. They are among the most vulnerable, belonging to already marginalized communities that struggle to meet their day to day needs. As a result, the unhoused have little to no power or influence on social norms and affairs. As someone who has experienced homelessness both in India and in America, I have come to distinguish some of the common misconceptions society holds about the unhoused population. There are a lot of stereotypes and social stigma that surrounds the discussions around homelessness, which often blames the victims of systemic issues, instead of restructuring the conversation around how we as society can best help these marginalized groups realize their basic human rights to shelter. In order to do so, we must first understand what it really means to be homeless in America.

History of Homelessness in America

Homelessness is not an issue unique to the United States, as it can be found in countries all over the world. While homelessness in America can be found as early as the colonial times, modern homelessness rose as a response to the Great Depression, where people experienced high levels of unemployment and poverty. Especially interesting is the relationship between the growth of urban cities and the rise in homelessness. Coupled with low-wages and higher costs of living, people found it more expensive to find places to live in urban centers, such as New York and California. The aftermath of the Great Depression put a lot of people in desperate need of employment, and as the economy took to the service industry, more and more undereducated, impoverished people had no other choice but to turn to these low-income jobs. The country’s shift to a service economy meant that laborers were now being paid lower wages, leaving service industry employees unable to afford the rising costs of housing. Coupled with higher housing costs and lower wages, when people turned to social welfare programs, they found these programs to be lacking in funds as well.

Additionally, there was a campaign to “Deinstitutionalize” people held in mental asylums. While the campaign itself was well-intended, its applications were lacking in structure, and instead of providing patients with proper access to mental health resources, people with mental disabilities were released to fend for themselves. The neglect of these institutions led to the increasing numbers of mental health patients facing housing insecurity. To make matters worse, gentrification policies (made to bring in wealthy real-estate investors and high-income residents to underdeveloped parts of the city) led to the displacement of many low-income families, putting them out of their homes. These policies disproportionately  affect people of color, something that has forced many marginalized communities to fall prey to an endless cycle of poverty and degradation.

Unfortunately, one of the most concerning additions to the homeless population is the disproportionate number of youths that identify as being part of the LGBTQ+ community. According to a recent study conducted by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, LGBTQ+ youth had a 120% higher risk of experiencing homelessness. These members who already belong to an ostracized community can become more vulnerable to harassment, violence and hate crimes.

Additionally, unable to find jobs after returning home from military service, many veterans end up homeless with nowhere else to go. Although places do exist to support veterans who experience homelessness, many are either unaware of the resources at hand, or too ashamed to use these resources. As a result of the social stigma surrounding the topic, people experiencing homelessness often become withdrawn from society.

Society’s Attitudes Toward the Homeless

A bench that has armrests in-between to prevent laying down
Source: Yahoo Images; An example of hostile architecture that prevents the unhoused from sleeping on benches

Homelessness is received with wildly different attitudes among different cultures. America is a very diverse country, with people that share hundreds of different cultures and traditions, and these cultural attitudes can carry over in the way they respond to contemporary social issues. Different cultures share a varying definition of what a “home” means, and even more distinctions in their approach toward people experiencing homelessness. What the dominant White culture might consider to be a home, (an individual unit of space for nuclear families), might not be what someone who belongs to the Indigenous population believes. They might argue that a home is where you can interact with your community, a place to feel safe and share with friends and family. Even the attitudes toward helping people who are unhoused have strict cultural implications. As described in Islam, it is part of the every-day religious ritual of a Muslim to give alms and help the poor in their community. In Hinduism, while helping the poor with food and shelter is allowed, certain castes are not allowed to eat alongside with or sit beside  people of lower castes. People experiencing homelessness have their own unique culture, where certain skills or strategies for survival on the streets are shared amongst each other.

Along with all these complexities, the unhoused also undergo various types of stigmas, including social stigma, and cultural stigma. Social stigma can be discrimination and harassment directed toward the homeless population by the institutions, systems and people that make up society. Cultural stigma can refer to the stigma expressed by friends and family members or other religious or cultural institutions that may shame and blame the victims for being homeless.

Unhoused people also have a hard time finding employment. This is partly due to the fact that the job application requires a home address for the application process to be completed. As a result, people who are dispossessed also experience difficulties when finding housing. The applications for apartments include a proof of income/employment section and applying for government housing takes months to be processed and reviewed. Many states have long and complicated application processes, and even then, it is not a guaranteed housing option. Nevertheless, applicants can be denied, and they would still need a place to stay while awaiting their application to be approved.

Adding to these difficulties, people in the homeless community are constantly harassed with wild stares or abuse, (both verbal and physical), from members of society. The law enforcement agency, an institution designed to serve and protect people of the community, may make matters worse by deteriorating the situation further. Without proper training, police approach the homeless defensively, ready to attack at the slightest “abnormal” reactions. What they haven’t been trained to realize is that many people experiencing homelessness are also at high-risk of developing mental health issues due to the stress and realities of being homeless. These altercations can turn deadly, and unfortunately, many people of the homeless community have either been locked up or even killed by officers of the law. Many of these instances were even caught on camera, yet these officers faced little to no accountability or legal punishment.

People experiencing homelessness are also easy targets to getting their possessions robbed, and many times, police will raid their camps and confiscate what few belongings they might acquire, including sleeping tents and toiletries. Society also treats the homeless population as a burden and blames them for being “lazy” or “druggies” or “criminals/suspicious,” without any provocation from the homeless community. It can be especially insulting for the people experiencing homelessness to be judged for their situation while society simultaneously fails to criticize the state’s inability to protect peoples’ fundamental human rights to food, shelter, and other basic needs.

The Legal Response to Homelessness in America

Spikes under bridges
Source: Yahoo Images; An example of hostile architecture to deter the homeless from sleeping under bridges

The legal response to the homelessness crisis in America has not been a heartwarming one either. Urban cities all over the United States have put in place anti-homelessness measures, otherwise known as hostile architecture. These include slanted benches, benches divided by armrests, spiked and rocky pavements to prevent people from sleeping there, and even boulders under bridges. Not only are these measures inhumane, they also cost the tax-payers a lot of money. These atrocious tactics are put in place to discourage homelessness, attempting to connect rising numbers of homelessness to increased crime rates. As recently as July of this year, Los Angeles even went so far as to make homelessness downright illegal, restricting homeless encampments in majority of the city. The city has even  prohibited the homeless from sitting, sleeping, or laying in public.  Due to the fact that homelessness overwhelmingly affects people who belong to already marginalized communities, a rights-based approach is necessary, one that addresses the existing systemic issues which need to be fixed first.

Covid-19 and How it Continues to Impact the Homeless Population

An image of a crowded homeless shelter
Source: Yahoo Images; Homeless shelters can be crowded, without proper social distancing measures in place

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to impact many different communities in a variety of ways. The pandemic hit especially hard among the homeless population, where access to hygienic products are often slim, if not non-existent. People experiencing homelessness may not have the ability to continuously wash and sanitize their hands, with limited access to clean water and soap products. They also been experience complications with social distancing measures, forced to be in crowded spaces like homeless shelters, which has only increased their risks of getting infected. Furthermore, even when infected, or exposed to the disease, the homeless population has very limited ability to quarantine, further allowing the spread of the disease to others in close proximity. The unhoused population has limited access to healthcare and medicinal treatments, and many are already immunocompromised or have pre-existing conditions, which increases their vulnerability of catching the disease. Stereotypes geared toward the homeless population labeling them as “junkies” or “druggies” has influenced the care they receive, leading to many cases of misdiagnoses or mistreatment as a result of biases held by healthcare professionals and others in the health care industry. Due to the rise in unemployment numbers during the economic shutdown as a response to the pandemic, millions of people who did not qualify for unemployment benefits, and could not make ends meet, also became homeless as a result.

Some Successful Approaches to Ending Homelessness

A person sitting next to a hostile architecture with a sign reading, "Homes Not Spikes"
source: yahoo images; An unhoused person advocating against hostile architecture

There have been some successful attempts at ending homelessness in America as well as in other nations. Utah attempted to decrease its rates of homelessness back in 2015, which successfully reduced its homelessness by 91%. They executed a policy known as “Housing First,” which gave their chronically homeless populations free housing, a decision that cost the state less money than alternative anti-homelessness measures. This program unfortunately has not been a complete success, as people experiencing homelessness in other states have been migrating to Utah, making it too expensive for Utah alone to pay for the country’s increasing homelessness crisis. A national policy, on the other hand, that could implement the Housing First approach taken by Utah, may be the easiest, and essentially cheapest option to ending the homelessness crisis in America. This is essentially what Finland did. In 2019, Finland approached the homelessness issue with the most obvious of answers, by providing housing for all those who are unhoused. Like Utah, they applied the “Housing First” policy, (which came with no strings attached), recognizing that housing is an essential human right that should be protected and promoted. They also understand that in the long run, providing the homeless population with housing is the cheaper option to society. Also, as examined earlier, if applied in America, this Housing First policy will inevitably save more lives, with fewer interactions between the homeless and the police.

While homelessness is not something people are normally born into, the unhoused face discrimination, stigmatization, and marginalization from society just as much as any other group. Although people’s socioeconomic status is a major factor in determining who is most vulnerable to experiencing homelessness, as we’ve seen in the case of the LGBTQ+ youth, and older veterans as well, homelessness can impact people of any and all races, at various age levels, and at any given time. The pandemic itself has expanded the homeless population as people are unable to pay their backed-up rent or mortgage payments. While alternative approaches can assist to eradicate levels of homelessness in our society as implemented in Finland and Utah, it is crucial that we also continue to destigmatize being homeless in American society and take a rights-based approach to finding long-term solutions to end their suffering.

 

 

“Pursuing Justice with Love and Power”: A Conversation with Brittany Packett Cunningham

a piece of street art from a George Floyd protest
Justice and Love. Source: Renoir Gaither. Creative Commons.

On Tuesday April 6th, the Institute for Human Rights at UAB welcomed acclaimed author and activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham to speak. Brittany facilitated a conversation entitled “Pursuing Justice with Love and Power.”  The discussion was moderated by IHR graduate assistant Jaylah Cosby and IHR intern Faiza Mawani.

Brittany began with discussing her inspiration for the phrase “love and power.” The phrase was actually borrowed from a lesser known piece of writing by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It can be utilized in word format or in a series of emojis: the heart emoji to represent love and the fist emoji to represent power. Love and power are conceived as two opposites. For example, love is perceived as soft whereas power is perceived as intense. However, Brittany emphasizes the importance of the two together. Our power can be informed with our love. This can be seen in a political landscape with loving policies that empower people where they are.

Brittany then pivots the conversation to discuss love and power in the context of community building. Community building begins first by being in and participating in the community. She describes 2014 as a pivotal turning point in American history and in her personal history. With 2014 came the protests in Ferguson where young people protected the American people’s right to protest. Communities showed their love for themselves and for others by standing up to the injustices in local, national, and international communities. Love is the root of protests. Brittany states, “We don’t need to know the people who have died by police violence to love them.” To actualize what love looks like, it is required to be in community with people.

When asked about whether the term “community” can mean an integrated community or a homogenous community, Brittany confirmed that both are necessary in making sense of our racial identity in the world. Affinity spaces allow for safety and comfort in what we know and understand. Finding community in those affinity spaces often provides the opportunity to find community in multicultural spaces. While working towards that multicultural community can be difficult and uncomfortable, that safe space from the homogenous group is still there at the end of the day. In answering this question, Brittany emphasizes the need to push for integrated spaces while also understanding the simultaneous need for affinity spaces.

In the time of COVID-19, digitalization has become ever more present in all spaces an advocacy is no exception. Brittany acknowledges how digital spaces have somehow made it easier to work as an activist. She describes digitalization as another tool in the toolbox that works toward justice. It changes the way people can view work, life, and accessibility. However, the digitalization of life and work has also allowed misinformation to flourish. Brittany’s example of the dangers of misinformation is with voter suppression. The most effective form of voter suppression is to convince voters to stay home by encouraging them to believe that their vote doesn’t count. Similarly, Brittany warns against performative digital advocacy. If an Instagram post is being created with the sole purpose of gaining followers, this is an example of performative digital advocacy. Instead, advocacy posts should encourage action and therefore be productive. Most importantly, digital advocacy must amplify the folks most affected by the issue whenever possible.

A question from the audience inspired Brittany to discuss the intersection between religious faith and social justice. In response, Brittany stated, “I identify as political not in spite of my faith but because of it.” Brittany speaks from the perspective of a Christian and highlighted many of the issues modern Christianity has.

The conversation began to orient towards the Derek Chauvin case, which was ongoing at the time of the event, and policing in the United States. Brittany admitted to not watching the trial but looking at the coverage after the fact. Her primary reason for doing so is an understanding that nothing in the Derek Chauvin trial will bring back George Floyd. She highlights the important difference between justice and accountability in this section of the conversation. Justice would be an anonymous, alive, George Floyd sitting with his family and friends and living his life. That will never happen due to the actions of Derek Chauvin. However, Chauvin can be held accountable for his actions. When discussing the trial, Brittany states how she hopes that from the spectacle that is the trial, people are able to understand that police officers should never be expected or allowed to be the judge, jury, and executioner.

Brittany’s perspective on policing in the United States is that it needs to cease to exist how it is. She cites the “abolitionist tradition” of the United States. The people who fought against the abolition of slavery often argued the economics of slavery and the reliance the United States had on it, a similar argument we see occurring now when discussing police systems. Brittany asks the audience that if reimagining what public safety looks life scares you, to ask yourself where you would have stood on the abolition of slavery. “The safest communities,” Brittany states, “are not those with the most cops, both those with the most resources. Period.”

Brittany ended the conversation with advice on how to “get on the train” of activism. She says that the most important things to do are to listen, learn, and act but acknowledges that the temptation in activism is to default to whichever of those three is your are comfortable with, which is often “learn.” Brittany explains that it is easy to fall into the trap of sitting in the corner of your house, reading the literature and listening the people but never exiting to help build the communities and act. Learning is only half of the work. With such a digitalized world, there is an opportunity to learn and listen from the people we are the least like. Brittany advises to write down what gives you a privilege and an advantage in the world and follow the people who do not have your privileges. She also advises to act locally, highlighting the fact that you do not have to travel to another place to be an activist. “Link up with the organizations in your community,” Brittany advises, “and that is how we get to work.”

Why Feminism Needs To Be An Anti-Racist Movement

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

Source: Informed Images (flickr.com)

Feminist Theory

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

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

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

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

Feminism as an Antiracist Movement

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

How can you help?

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

The Increase of Hate Crimes in the United States

No hate sign at a rally
No to hate. Source: Tim Pierce. Creative Commons.

It is undeniable that hate crimes directed towards Asian Americans have been increasing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. An organization created to respond to racism against Asians, Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate, has received thousands of reports of hate crimes across the United States just throughout the duration of the pandemic in 2020. This is a very large increase from previous years. Racist rhetoric surrounding the pandemic including terms like “China virus” and “kung flu” is a significant reason why these forms of hate crimes are increasing at such a rate in the United States. Many of the attacks are targeting elderly Asian Americans. In San Francisco, an elderly Thai man was attacked and later died from the injuries he sustained. In New York, one man had his faced slashed with a box cutter, a woman was assaulted in the subway, and another woman also experienced assault on the subway. Hate crimes towards many groups have been increasing in the United States for the past few years, with COVID-19 and the Trump administration providing a lenient space for hate crimes and speech.

new york
New York during COVID-19. Source: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York. Creative Commons.

In 2020, the FBI released their annual hate crimes report for the previous year, 2019. This report showed that hate crimes rose by 3%, a number that may not seem that significant at first glance but breaks a record with the highest number of hate crimes in a year. Of the more than 7000 hate crimes reported, 51 were fatal, another record breaking number. 22 of the 51 killings motivated by hate towards another group came from a domestic terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas, a mass shooting in a local Walmart targeting shoppers of Mexican descent.

The FBI defines hate crimes as “motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” It is important to realize that while the FBI’s report is key for understanding the hate dynamics in our country, it is ultimately an undercount. Many hate crimes go undocumented and even more are not categorized as hate crimes. Over 15,000 law enforcement agencies participate in reporting hate crimes. In 2019, over 86% of these agencies did not report any hate crime. The FBI report clearly shows that deadly hate crimes are increasing, however less and less agencies are reporting their data.

The categorization of hate crimes is also a major issue. For example, for the 2019 report the FBI recorded only one attack against those of Hispanic origin despite the El Paso, Texas shooting being largely recognized as an extremely deadly attack against El Paso’s Hispanic population. The deaths that resulted from the shooting were listed as “anti-other race/ethnicity/ancestry.”

El Paso Texas post card
Greetings from El Paso, Texas. Source: Boston Public Library. Creative Commons.

The breakdown for hate crimes in 2018 is as follows:

  • Anti-Black: 2,426
  • Sexual orientation or gender identity: 1,445
  • Anti-white: 1,038
  • Anti-Jewish: 920
  • Anti-Hispanic: 671
  • Anti-Muslim: 236
  • Anti-Indigenous Peoples: 209

According to the National Institute of Justice, 60% of most hate crimes are motivated by racial bias. Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, freedom of speech. Therefore, speech intended to hurt, degrade, disrespect, and discriminate against a group of people can not be punished by law. However, the language used can be used in court as evidence of a hate crime.

The Department of Homeland Security revealed in their Homeland Threat Assessment that the growing upward trend of hate crimes represent a larger threat from extremist right wing groups. The DHS report also acknowledged that the largest domestic terror threat in the United States is the threat posed by white supremacist groups. The record-breaking white supremacist attacks in 2019 created the most deadly year of domestic terrorism since 1995. In 1995 Timothy McVeigh committed a bombing in Oklahoma City, a person and act that many white supremacist leaders look up to. Violent attacks like the one in Oklahoma City and the more recent one in El Paso work to encourage more violence, causing harm to specific groups and bringing more white attention to the cause.

Conspiracy theories are a large part of white supremacy. One conspiracy theory, “The Great Replacement” claims that white people are being replaced and erased from Western countries in a plot created by Jews. This conspiracy theory was alluded to by the El Paso shooter who described a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and by the person who attacked a synagogue in California in 2019, leaving one person dead and three others injured. The rise in hate crimes coupled with the growing presence of hate groups is not a coincidence. Between 2017 and 2019 white supremacist groups grew in numbers by 55%.

white supremacy flag
White supremacy. Source: Robert Thivierge. Creative Commons.

The recent increase in hate crimes also coincides with rhetoric perpetuated by former President Trump and his supporters. The words, opinions, and discriminatory speech used by the former president has been clearly identified as motivating many hate oriented attacks. An analysis of the FBI report shows that loaded remarks made by Trump are followed by increases in hate crimes and increases in hate speech on online platforms, especially directed towards Hispanic and Jewish peoples. The rhetoric used by former President Trump regarding groups of people and the COVID-19 pandemic has created a lenient space that does not punish hate speech or hate crimes. Hate crimes have been increasing, showing how harmful stereotypes and racism can truly be. It is important to recognize how and why hate crimes have been increasing in order to better address them and keep communities safe.

The Keystone XL Pipeline and America’s History of Indigenous Suppression

A fake pipeline with the words "stop the xl pipeline" protesting the pipeline
Stop the XL Pipeline. Source: tarsandaction, Creative Commons.

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order canceling the Keystone XL Pipeline Project. The pipeline, which had severe environmental and human rights implications, has been on a long road towards failure. This pipeline was proposed in 2008 and has been referred to as either the Keystone XL pipeline or KXL. In 2015, the Obama administration vetoed the pipeline due to its potential threats to the climate, drinking water, public health, and ecosystems of the local communities. In 2017, the Trump administration reversed Obama’s veto, signing an executive order to advance the Keystone pipeline as well as a similar crude oil project, the Dakota Access Pipeline despite the many valid arguments made against the two pipelines. President Trump also issued a cross-border permit to the pipeline developer, a permit that had been long sought after for the developers. Since the approval, the Trump administration has been sued twice by environmental organizations and lost each time.

The Keystone XL pipeline was proposed by the energy infrastructure company TC Energy. It was proposed to be an extension of the existing Keystone Pipeline System, which has been in operation since 2010. The goal was to transport 830,000 barrels of crude, tar sand oil to refineries on the American Gulf Coast each day. Tar sands lie beneath the northern Alberta boreal forest. They contain a form of petroleum called bitumen, a relatively sludgy substance that can be turned into fuel. Because of the highly corrosive and acidic nature of the tar sands oil, there contains a higher likelihood that the pipeline will leak. A study set between the years 2007 and 2010 found that pipelines carrying tar sands oil spilled three times more per mile than pipelines carrying conventional crude oil. The southern portion of the pipeline, from Oklahoma to Texas, has already been completed. This portion of the pipeline is called the Gulf Coast Pipeline. The climate impact of a complete and fully operational Keystone XL would be drastic. It would increase mining by accelerating the production and transportation of crude oil. It has also been determined that tar sands oil emits 17 percent more carbon than other forms of crude oil. In 2017, the US State Department released a study which proved that carbon emissions could be between 5 and 20 percent higher than the original 17 percent estimation. This means an extra 178.3 million metric tons of greenhouse gas would be emitted annually, a similar impact to 38.5 million cars.

A few protestors with flags in front of the Washington Monument
Keystone XL protestors. Source: Victoria Pickering, Creative Commons.

President Biden’s executive order was a landmark achievement and a sigh of relief for indigenous and environmental activists alike. Indigenous leaders are encouraging him to go even further and cancel more controversial fossil fuel projects, such as the Dakota Access pipeline. Several indigenous leaders, including Dallas Goldtooth of the Mdewakanton Dakota and Dine nations and Faith Spotted Eagle of the Ihanktonwan Dakota nation, have seen Biden’s executive order as a sign of the administration keeping its campaign promise to work against climate change and work with indigenous communities. Many indigenous populations have fought for over a decade to defend their water and land rights against fossil fuel companies. Goldtooth called Biden’s decision a “vindication” of the hard work and struggle many indigenous communities have put forth in protest of the pipeline. Pipelines like the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines as well as other fossil fuel projects actively pollute native land and water resources as well as consistently contribute to global warming due to their high greenhouse gas emissions.

A similar crude oil project, the Dakota Access Pipeline has received media attention in previous years due to the police and state reactions to the protests over its creation. This pipeline transports 470,000 barrels of crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois, over 1,172 miles. The pipeline continually threatens the sanctity of indigenous sacred lands and the purity and safety of the local water supply. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has been one of the most vocal groups in working to oppose the creation of the Dakota Access Pipeline. There did occur a series of protests for many months, in opposition of the creation of the pipeline. The protests were primarily peaceful, with camps and prayer circles set up on the land where construction was to take place. However, despite youth and elderly leaders being in the front during the inevitable standoffs with police, Mace, tasers, and rubber bullets were used against the protestors.

A group of young protestors holding a red banner reading "indigenous justice is climate justice."
Indigenous Justice. Source: John Englart, Creative Commons.

The briefest look at American and Canadian history clearly shows that the pipeline situations are most certainly not the first instance of the government refusing to respect the lands, waters, and even peoples of indigenous groups. Until 2016, Canada officially objected to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Canada is considered one of the most water-rich countries in the world and yet many indigenous communities continue to be provided with inadequate access to safe drinking water which provides a large public health concern for these communities. The Canadian federal government refused to provide child and family services funding for indigenous children living on reserves, a purposeful discrimination tactic against indigenous communities. It has been determined that the pervasive violence against indigenous women amounts to genocide.

In the United States, there live over 5.2 million indigenous peoples and among them, 573 federally recognized tribes, numerous unrecognized nations, and many communities scattered across the North American continent, displaced by a long history of western oppression and forced assimilation. Between the years of 1778 and 1871 alone, the United States government has signed over 370 treaties with different indigenous nations, nearly all of which promised peace, defined land boundaries, and protection of land, water, and hunting rights. Based on the current status of indigenous peoples within the United States, it is evident that these treaties and those that followed were either never fulfilled or were manipulated to provide leverage for the United States government. President Biden’s executive order ending the construction of the Keystone XL is a very hopeful step forward, however it needs to serve as a pushing off point for the administration to continue furthering both environmental and indigenous rights.

The Texas Social Worker’s Code

social work student listening to lecture
Social Work Students’ Accreditation Visit 3.26.13. Source: Southern Arkansas University, Creative Commons

Social work is a field in which professionals are intended to do their best to help connect members of vulnerable populations with the resources necessary to allow them to live with their rights and general well-being safe.  However, on October 12 of this year, during a meeting between the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council and the Texas Board of Social Work Examiners, a section of the social workers’ code of conduct was altered.  A section which previously stated, “A social worker shall not refuse to perform any act or service for which the person is licensed solely on the basis of a client’s age; gender; race; color; religion; national origin; disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression; or political affiliation.”  During the meeting, the words “disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression” were taken out.  They instead replaced that phrase with the word sex, making the social workers’ code match the Texas Occupations Code. 

This is concerning for a few reasons, the most glaring one being that it leaves members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities in Texas, two populations that are already seriously vulnerable, even more vulnerable than before, as social workers can now turn away potential clients from those communities.   

This led to an uproar among advocates for the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, as at puts their ability to access important resources that are related to their basic human rights directly at risk.  There is an increasingly serious concern that members of these populations will face even more obstacles in accessing the things they need than they already do. 

The Human Rights Connection 

It’s important to recognize that is an issue of human rights, even outside of the clear issue of discrimination against these groups that is involved.  Consider some of the jobs of social workers.  They include therapists, case workers, workers for Child Protective Services, and much more.  In addition to working with people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community in general, many social workers specialize in work with children and older adults, two groups which overlap with the former.  Then these vulnerable populations are unable to get the support they need in order to access the tools, programs, and resources that exist specifically to help them live life and access their basic needs, they are by extension often kept from being able to access their basic human rights.   

Sign that reads "Social Workers change the world"
Source: Yahoo Images

One clear example of this is when people with disabilities require financial aid to support themselves do to an inability to be a part of the general workforce.  Social workers are an important part of the process of connect the people affected by this issue with the resources and government programs they need.  Without the aid of social workers, they might have significant difficulty accessing their right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control,” as recognized in Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

The fact that this allows social workers to discriminate certain groups in accepting clients is human rights issue in itself, as according to Article 7 of the UDHR, all are entitled to equal protection under the law and, All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” 

 The Purpose of Social Work: Helping Vulnerable Populations 

Another reason this change in the Texas social workers’ code of conduct is problematic is that the field of social work is inherently meant to involve professionals helping vulnerable populations (such as the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities).   According to the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) Code of Ethics, The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human wellbeing and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”  vulnerable population is a group or community “at a higher risk for poor health as a result of the barriers they experience to social, economic, political and environmental resources, as well as limitations due to illness or disability.” 

Social work is also built a set of core values: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, competence.  It is the job of a social worker to do what they can to uphold those values by helping vulnerable populations access the resources they need.  Therefore, social workers’ turning away members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, particularly vulnerable groups, goes against the social work code of ethics.   

The ethical principles of social work also bar social workers from participating in acts of discrimination on the “basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical ability.” 

There is a meeting set for October 27, 2020 so that the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council can discuss the issue of discrimination as it applies to the changes that were made to the Texas social workers’ code of conduct.  It is vital that we do not underestimate the significance of this situation and the serious harm that it can cause. 

Not Fair, Still Lovely: The Perpetuating Toxicity of Colorism

advertisement for a skin whitening cream
Source: Adam Jones

This past summer, two pandemics plagued the world: COVID-19 and systemic racial discrimination and prejudice against Black communities. While the former was making modern history, the latter had been happening for centuries. As I thought of ways to address and educate myself and my family on these injustices, I found myself revisiting and reevaluating my own biases, particularly those I’ve experienced within the Indian community.

Growing up in South India, I would mimic my mother and grandma’s daily skin care routine when they used “Fair and Lovely,” a skin lightening and bleaching cream. I was constantly told to not play outside because I might get too dark, and my foundation for dance competitions and rehearsals was often shades lighter that what it needed to be. I was raised in a world where your worth was defined by the color of your skin, and if by chance your skin was too dark or too tan, then you were seen as un-beautiful, unworthy, and incompetent. Most women like my mom, my grandma, and I, as well as other individuals that suffer from the stigma that being dark is ugly, have often fallen prey to companies that profit off the ideology that whiter skin is equivalent to beauty, self-confidence, and self-worth.

Colorism in Indian Society

Colorism is an issue that is often ignored and rooted in societal pressure around fairness. It is a discriminatory practice in which institutions or individuals treat those with lighter skin tones more favorably, upholding instead White, Eurocentric standards of beauty. India is a mixture of diverse cultures, languages, and shades of brown. With different skin tones came colorism that continues to perpetuate stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory actions. For generations, Indian society has been brainwashed into the ideology that fairer skin is more desirable, leading to the nation  developing a multibillion-dollar skin lightening industry. Everyday products like Olay’s Natural White Glowing Fairness Cream, Lotus Herbal’s White Glow Skin Whitening and Brightening Gel Crème, Pond’s White Beauty Daily Spot-Less Lightening Cream, etc. promote stereotypes against darker skin tones through their marketing strategies. For example, a current advertisement shows a young woman with a darker skin tone being rejected from a job later ends up using a fairness product to become more beautiful and thus confident. She then goes on to score an even better job at the end. Mainstream media also fails to provide accurate representations of India’s population, with many actors being light skinned and with frequent recruitment of foreign and predominantly White-presenting actors. Often the practice of “brown-face” is used among these actors and production companies to fit a certain role or aesthetic, thereby enforcing negative stereotypes when proper recruitment should’ve happened in the first place. Even more disturbing is that these stereotypes are so enforced in people’s homes and daily lives and can affect prospective marriages, job opportunities, and other relationships due to preferential treatment towards lighter skin.

The Origins of Colorism

Often, people mistakenly identify the origins of colorism with the caste system present in India. The caste system divides the Indian population according to labor and promotes the idea that each subgroup has its own functionally important role in society. Over time, this led to misrepresentation and manipulation of the caste system, because higher status on the ladder typically meant more prestigious work related to education, religion, trading, etc., whereas lower status meant more labor-intensive work that typically meant occupations in dirtier, outdoor environments. Naturally, those individuals lower on that ladder became darker due to their exposure to natural environmental conditions. Their natural and seasonal tanning along with their status as Dalits (“the untouchables”) within the caste system can be argued to have contributed to colorism. While the caste system does play a part in this ideology, it doesn’t fully explain why discrimination continues to happen, especially among individuals that identify with a higher status on the caste system but are also darker. Apart from that, multiple text depict Hindu deities as “dark-skinned,” and who hold a tremendous amount of respect, honor, and power. Neither the caste system nor religion can wholly explain the origins or colorism and why it still continues to perpetuate today.

A chart depiction of the Caste system.
Source: Source: The Ancient Wisdom Project

Colonization, the third factor of this equation, seems to be the missing part of the puzzle. Like many countries, India was not exempt from British rule and had only in the past century gained its independence. During the centuries of British rule and oppression, “colonization was embedded in the idea that fair skin people were the ruling class, and darker skinned people were the subjects.” Apart from this, there was also blatant favoritism by the newly erected British government towards light skinned Indians that directly affected social and class mobility as well as a family’s socioeconomic status. This was seen through discriminatory practices, such as offering lighter skinned individuals government pardons, jobs, and a voice, which were not offered to Indians of darker skin tones. This mindset, that the only way to be worthy, to be accomplished, and to be civilized and beautiful, slowly became an innate mantra amongst the Indian population, creating generations of individuals that strive for a beauty standard deeply rooted in anti-ethnic, anti-Indian, and anti-minority sentiments. The effects of colonization intermingled with the stereotypical notions of the caste system to give us unique and deeply rooted coloristic principles.

Difference between racism and colorism

Earlier, I mentioned that I wanted to address my own biases regarding systemic racism and educate myself on this issue. However, as an Indian-American immigrant, I found it difficult to navigate the differences between racism and colorism as the two are often intertwined and seen together in my community. But the more I researched on this issue, I found that people, often non South Asians, frequently mistook colorism for racism because it can perpetuates anti-Black sentiments within South Asian communities. Except, they are very distinct concepts. For example, in the U.S. (but not exclusive to the U.S.), skin color is the foundation of race, and continues to be a criterion in determining how they are evaluated and judged. The United States’ historic treatment and oppression of Black Americans is racially based, and within that exist preferences for certain skin tones. However, in a lot of Asian and colonized countries, race is not the primary indicator of how an individual will be treated. Instead, the color of a person’s skin on the wide range of the color spectrum will be the major determinant. While the two sound very similar, “the pervasiveness of a color hierarchy” is the crucial factor in social and class mobility, not necessarily race. Colorism and racism, while closely related problems need different solutions, and while these some of these solutions may overlap, each has a unique set of problems.

Woman holding a Black Lives Matter sign.
Source: Socially Urban

Right now, certain skin care and make-up companies, such as Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely,” that release skin whitening, bleaching, and lightening products have issued public apologies and are removing, re-advertising, and rebranding their products. While this alone is not enough, because the consumption of such products is based in generational trauma surrounding discrimination around darker skin and beautiful shades of brown, it is a step forward in addressing how such companies are profiting off anti-Black sentiments and how to halt such practices.

What can I do?

  • Follow Nina Davuluri’s “See My Complexion” petition and project.
  • Continue to callout and critique companies that promote skin bleaching and whitening products because cosmetic changes such as rebranding products is not enough to halt harmful beauty standards.
  • Most importantly, it’s important to address and actively combat our own implicit biases that are rooted in generational trauma.