Poland’s Rise in Populism

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

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

The Close Relationship Between Religion and Government

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

 President Duda and the 2020 Elections

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

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

LGBTQ Free Zones

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

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

Access to Abortion

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

 What is the future of Poland?

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Voter Fraud and Voter Suppression: America’s Legacy of Eliminating the Right to Vote

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Polling Station. Source: Pete. Creative Commons.

Ever since Joe Biden secured enough electoral college votes to be considered the President-Elect, the word “fraud” has been used in many capacities. Donald Trump and other prominent Republicans have been calling for recounts of the votes in many states, due to claims of voter fraud. The New York Times published an article where top election officials in all 50 states reported if they saw any evidence of fraud and none of them were able to report an issue. The only one that did not respond at all was Texas, where the Lieutenant Governor offered a $1 million reward for any form of evidence of fraud. In the 2016 election, Trump also claimed fraud occurred, even going so far as to appointing a commission for the 2016 election. This commission was unable to find any credible evidence for fraud. There have been instances throughout history of individual level voter fraud. There are even some cases of more organized instances of voter fraud such as in Chicago in 1982 and in Brooklyn in 1984. However, these cases were never to the extent that could swing a presidential election and since then jurisdictions have tightened their laws and technology surrounding voting has evolved.

With this have come many claims that mail in ballots could be the source of any possible voting fraud. While mail in ballots have always been used (think absentee ballots), there was a significant increase of usage this year due to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the last two federal presidential elections, nearly one in four Americans voted by using the mail in ballot system. There have been increases in voting by mail in ballots over the years and even with these increases, fraud rates have remained very, very small. There are many tools to address some very valid security concerns when it comes to mail in ballots. The primary method for determining and preventing mail in voter fraud is identity verification. Each voter is required to include personal identifying information such as their address, driver’s license number, or the last four digits of their Social Security number. This information is used to match the mail in ballot with the information stored on voter registration rolls. The signature on every ballot is matched with the corresponding signature on the voter registration record. Bar codes are also utilized to track ballot processing and help voters understand where their ballot is in the process. The bar codes are also used to help states identify any possible duplicate ballots. Similarly, ballot tracking programs allow the United States Postal Service to track a ballot from drop off to delivery. Anyone who commits voter fraud by using mail in ballots is considered a felon and could receive $10,000 in fines.

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Vote by Mail. Source: outtacontext. Creative Commons.

This current focus on alleged voter fraud completely disregards the systemic disenfranchisement of people of color within the United States, especially in regards to their right to vote. Despite non-Hispanic white people being a shrinking percentage of the United States, they have held tightly onto their political power through discriminatory practices that go back many centuries. In the 2020 election, this power was very clearly shrinking and more desperate attempts to hold on to it were made. These included slowing down the mail by taking away funding from the United States Postal Service, hurriedly appointing a Supreme Court justice, shutting down polling places in Black communities, refusing to count people of color in the 2020 census, calling for the election to be over before all of the ballots have been counted, and not allowing public schools and government agencies to discuss the long American history of disenfranchising non-white voters. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in the Shelby County v. Holder decision to remove the “preclearance” requirement. The preclearance requirement required states with a history of discrimination against non-white voters to get federal authorization for any changes they make to voting laws and rules. After the removal of this requirement, discrimination against BIPOC communities has persisted in many states, if not all.

One such state where we can clearly see the effects of the Shelby County v. Holder case is Georgia. In Georgia, the demographics have been rapidly changing and it has become a battleground state in elections over the past few years. Brian Kemp, the Republican Secretary of State of Georgia, worked hard to close polling places in Black communities, eliminate resources for election officials in Black communities, and removing people of color from voting lists. In Georgia counties like Fulton and Cobb that are becoming more and more diverse by the year, the wait time for voting was over 6 hours. The consolidation of polling locations due to the pandemic did contribute to the extended wait time. In some areas, Georgians waited for 11 hours to vote. In others, people waited in line and voted, all within 10 minutes. An analysis from Propublica found that within Georgia, predominately black precincts were more likely to have the longest wait times for voting even though those were the areas where a majority of new voter registrations occurred. It was largely due to these tactics that Stacy Abrams narrowly lost the Georgia governor race to Kemp. Since then, Abrams has been a champion for Black voters, pulling together one of the biggest voter registration campaigns in Georgia and in the United States. It is thanks to her hard work that Georgia flipped blue during the 2020 presidential race.

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Voting Lines. Source: bunnicula. Creative Commons.

In 2018, Stacy Abrams began a large voter registration project in Georgia and it is to her effort that Biden owes his victory in Georgia. In the 2016 election, 500,000 black Americans voted in Georgia. In 2020, more than twice this number voted, making 1.2 million black voters in Georgia this year. Of all of the new voters in Georgia, registered after November 2018, half are black and 45% are under 30, two demographics that tend to vote bluer. Many other black women worked with Abrams to ensure this victory. Such advocates include Nsé Ufot, Helen Butler, Deborah Scott, and Tamieka Atkins. This is a long and mostly overlooked tradition of black women leading the charge for voting rights

Despite the adamant refusal to acknowledge the history of oppression of people of color by white people, these 2020 voter suppression tactics are reminiscent of the voter suppression measures used during the Jim Crow era. During this era, poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation factors were used to keep Black and low income populations from voting. Now, officials in Florida require people convicted of a felony, primarily black men due to over policing, to pay all of their court fines and fees before allowing them to vote. Some states, including Texas, have determined that officials do not have to notify voters if their absentee ballot was rejected. Fake poll watchers are encouraged by the sitting President to intimidate voters. The claims of voter fraud largely aimed at black and Latino communities have not changed in the years between the Jim Crow era and 2020.This is not just a problem within the southern states, as it is often believed. Proof of voter oppression is found in New York, Connecticut, and New Hampshire along with many other states. When discussing voter fraud, it is important to discuss all of the injustices voters have faced this election cycle. The refusal to change current discriminatory policies and the persistent continuation of new voter suppression tactics show an inherent disregard for the rights of many communities. It is clear that no election changing voter fraud has occurred this election cycle, however the conversation remains centered around this subject instead of addressing the number of people of color who were unable to vote due to purposeful legislation created by largely white lawmakers.

 

Cancel Culture: A Societal Obligation or Infringement on Free Speech?

A large majority of people spend their time online talking to friends, sharing and obtaining news, or connecting with family. Our lives being connected to the internet has forced us to learn how to network and find our way around social media platforms. Social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, facilitated the creation of “cancel culture” as we know it today. Cancel culture is used to call out behaviors and actions of individuals and corporations that convey opinions or feelings which are objectively questionable or not appropriate from a public perspective. Engaging in cancel culture typically requires a series of hashtags that proclaim an individual is being cancelled. A hashtag followed by the word cancelled or a hashtag with a person’s name followed by the phrase “isover” are the most commonly used hashtags within the tradition of cancelling. This brings us to an interesting dilemma of whether or not cancel culture is an infringement on freedom of speech.

Infringement on Freedom of Speech

Cancel culture has proven to be an effective method to identify the actions taken by individuals and corporations to rectify mistakes. Recently, in light of social justice movements such as the Black Lives Matter Movement and #MeToo; during an election year, cancel culture has been used to take down racist statues, rename buildings named after white supremacists, call out celebrities and prominent figures in society, and address “racist, sexist, or homophobic views or ideologies.”

Cancel Culture from Two Perspectives

The first perspective is often from the people who are advocating against cancel culture. These people often have large platforms, and they are upset that their freedom of speech is being infringed upon due to the policing of cancel culture and they’re afraid of being criticized for their opinions. The first perspective against cancel culture revolves around the inability to take criticism.

The second perspective involves those that do not engage in exercising their right to free speech and expression. People are afraid of the repercussions of cancel culture so they choose to not express themselves. This second perspective of cancelling is more concerning because it involves actively suppressing the beliefs, ideologies, and perspectives of people and a true cancelling of these voices.

There is a delicate balance in defending the right to freedom of speech and holding individuals and corporations responsible for their actions. The issue with cancel culture is that there is no gradation and all missteps have the same severity of punishment. People can be fired, and student admission can be halted as a result of this. In most cases, it’s a trend to be cancelled where people jump on a bandwagon without the slightest amount of information on what they are cancelling.

On the other hand, “defending speech has become a tool to bully others into silence.” Often, proponents of free speech will quote the right to speech and expression granted by the Constitution to prevent others from criticizing them. While it can be a useful tactic in the short term to support an argument, it leaves no room for compromise. This tactic makes it impossible to find the equilibrium in a conversation, which I argue can be almost as bad as cancel culture.

A protestor holds us up a fundamental part of what defines the freedom of speech. Source: theduran.com
A protestor holds up a fundamental part of what defines the freedom of speech. Source: theduran.com

A Different Option: Call Out Culture

More often than not, free speech is not being infringed upon. It is often a case of what boundaries are being set to speak in a public setting and if those boundaries are acceptable. While it is our responsibility to be open and receptive of opposing views, these views are not always in concordance to what a majority of people might believe. This gives leeway for a new type of action where the public can participate in call out culture instead of cancel culture. But before calling out, it is still important to give the opponent a chance to respond and hear their responses to avoid regressing and participating in what can be a very toxic culture. Responses do not need to include canceling, suppressing, or removing, but can include educating, accepting, and forgiving. This gives room where we can set boundaries safely and simply say, “I do not agree with you,” but even with this it is very situational where some actions are above disagreeing and need to be addressed properly.

For example, in 2016 a Pepsi advertisement featuring model and influence Kendall Jenner was incredibly tone deaf, and downplayed the severity of protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. The outcry against the ad prompted a response from Pepsi and Jenner apologizing for the missing the mark on trying to project “unity, peace, and understanding,” and for putting Jenner is this position. The public seemed to not hold Pepsi to the same standards that Jenner was held, and to this day still is, and essentially made her accountable for the apology, when every one that participated in the situation and production should have also been held responsible. On the other hand, Larry Nassar, who was national team doctor for USA gymnastics, was charged for hundred of cases of sexual assault under the pretext medical treatment for the athletes. Him, his actions, and his behavior harmed hundreds of lives and families, and so the public outcry against the individual, his actions, and the system that supported him was warranted and justified in a situation. Did he deserve to get cancelled? I think most people would argue yes, in a situation that is very black and white both morally and legally. Then the question becomes one of gradation. Did Jenner, a decent person often on the right path, deserve to get cancelled and held to the same standards of accountability, just as Nassar, and risk facing a stagnant and declining career for a misstep? For this, I think most people would argue no, because, yes while the ad was harmful to several communities, it was no where near the severity of Nassar’s actions. Yes, her participation needed to be addressed, but did it warrant “cancelling” a targeted individual because of their background instead of education them?

How to avoid cancel culture?

  • Do your own research on the situation or individual – the one being called out or cancelled as well as the individual doing the calling out or cancelling.
  • Evaluate the gradation and the consequence of the action in question, and ask yourself if cancel culture actually works.
  • Try to address how toxic it can be for your mental health and identify if there is another way to help.
  • If you do decide to engage, make sure to call out and educate instead of cancel.

Shelby County v. Holder: The Voting Rights Act in Peril

Supreme Court of the United States of America
“Supreme Court” by Mark Fischer. Source: Creative Commons

One of the crowning achievements of the Civil Rights Movement was the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, the Voting Rights Act deemed state and federal tactics designed to restrict African Americans from exercising their right to vote unconstitutional. This made voter suppression efforts such as poll taxes and literacy tests illegal and required states and jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression and discrimination to obtain pre-clearance from the federal government before implementing any changes to voting laws or election practices. In 2013, citizens of Shelby County, Alabama, sued Attorney General Eric Holder, citing that sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act were no longer necessary because discrimination in voting was no longer a problem. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. This decision has the power to single-handedly unhinge the electoral process in America.

1965 Voting Rights Act

Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, minority voters were victims of vicious voter suppression tactics, and many lost their lives in the pursuit of an elusive constitutional right. These tactics included unaffordable poll taxes, frivolous literacy tests and harassment. Poll taxes financially penalized non-voters for every year they went unregistered to vote since the 1890s, a time when people of African descent were not legally allowed to vote. Literacy tests were designed to deter minority voters, many of whom were illiterate due to oppression and lack of educational opportunities. Women such as Amelia Boyton Robinson and Annie Lee Cooper attempted to register multiple times in the City of Selma, Alabama. These women and others were met with hostile opposition and fierce resistance from the state. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 enforced the 15th amendment of the United States Constitution and prohibited discriminatory voting practices such as literacy tests. It also empowered the federal government to take an active role in the oversight of voter registration and electoral processes in states that have a documented history of voter suppression and intimidation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 explicitly prohibited the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia from making changes to voting procedure without the approval of the federal government.  Following the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, voter registration increased drastically amongst minorities throughout the United States, especially in the South.

Shelby County v. Holder

On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States of America made a monumental decision that has and will continue to have residual effects on the electoral process moving forward. Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S 529 (2013)directly challenged the legality of Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Section 4 implemented a coverage formula that determined which voting districts were required to receive governmental pre-clearance. Pre-clearance is a term used to describe the role of the federal government in the voting process. Jurisdictions that were required by the 1965 Voting Rights Act to receive pre-clearance from the federal government were restricted from making any changes to voting laws without the pre-approval of the federal government. Prior to the pre-clearance clause, states that have long histories of voter suppression were allowed to make legal changes to the voting process with no opposition. The Supreme Court ruled that segments of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional and should no longer be implemented. The court ruled the restrictions placed on particular states years prior are no longer relevant and are now in violation of the state’s constitutional right to regulate elections. Chief Justice John Roberts stated in the opinion of the court, “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”  The court had the opportunity to reinforce The Voting Rights Act and instead decided to relegate the responsibility of protecting voting rights to Congress. This ruling greatly weakened the Voting Rights Act as a whole. Now, states such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia are free to make changes to voting laws that are not explicitly covered under other sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Shelby County, Alabama successfully argued that states with a blatant history of racism and oppression were no longer in need of governmental oversight because “that was a long time ago” and these discriminatory practices had been discontinued. Following the Shelby County v. Holder decision of 2013, the state of Alabama began regressing advancements made since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Alabama passed a “voter ID law, closed polling places in predominately Black counties, and purged hundreds of thousands of people from voter rolls.”

The Future of Voting

The true ramifications of Shelby County v. Holder are yet to be seen, but there have been slight and monumental changes to the election process thus far. Alabama now requires a valid photo ID, polling stations are closing for no apparent reason, and voting lines are unusually long. Voting remains elusive for minorities, and the United States still does not have free and fair elections. For example, the most recent gubernatorial election in the state of Georgia displayed instances of blatant voter suppression. Brian Kemp was serving as the Secretary of State for the state of Georgia while he was actively campaigning against Stacey Abrams for Governor. Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election was riddled with complaints filed by voters that citied instances of voter suppression at and around the polls. The most prominent complaint was that in 2017 then Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office removed 560,000 Georgia voters from the state voter registration logs. Many of the voters that were purged from Georgia’s registration logs in 2017 were not made aware of this until they attempted to vote in the 2018 gubernatorial election. Prior to the decision rendered in Shelby County v. Holder, Brian Kemp would have been required by law to obtain pre-clearance from the federal government before purging these voters from Georgia’s voter registration logs. Without the protections of the federal government, state governments are free to alter the voting process with no consciences. The 2017 voter purge in Georgia is one of the more well-known instances of state exploitation of the Shelby County v. Holder decision in the name of voter suppression.

With a Heavy Heart

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg fought tirelessly for the protections of civil rights in America. A formidable champion of voting rights, she believed it is Court’s duty above all else to protect the right to vote and to protect the election process.Justice Ginsberg’s most notable dissent was in the Shelby County v. Holder decision. Justice Ginsberg’s stated in her dissent, Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet. Justice Ginsberg’s dissent in the Shelby County v. Holder decision can and will be citied in future legal documentation that directly challenges the decision rendered in Shelby County v. Holder. Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s dissent is indicative of the life that she lived. Justice Ginsberg was a champion of civil rights and she made a monumental impact.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg
“Ruth Bader Ginsberg” by The Aspen Institute. Source: Creative Commons

Call to Action

Voting is a fundamental right that should be guaranteed to all human beings of voting age. It is imperative that we understand the price of not voting and understand the importance of being politically aware and conscience of the decisions being made on our behalf without our knowledge. November 3, 2020 is quickly approaching and the need to vote is as important now as it has always been. The best way to amend the injustices made by the Supreme Court and elected officials is to elect individuals that will fight for justice and make voting easier for all citizens. The goal is to guarantee free and fair elections and to have an electoral system that prioritizes everyone equally and refuses to benefit from the marginalization of valuable perspectives and unique experiences.

House Democrats advocating for the restoration of Section 5 of The Voting Rights Act
“#RestoreTheVote” by House Democrats. Source: Creative Commons

“Eat the Rich!”: A Rallying Cry Against Income Inequality

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Eat the Rich Sign. wsquared photography. Source: Creative Commons.

Throughout the pandemic, I have found my social media use rise exponentially. I think it is a way to find human connection, when my primary form of social interaction is with my roommates. Apps like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and more recently, TikTok, allow me to check in on my friends and family across the world but they also allow for a version of political discourse to take place. From sharing news articles to posting pictures with informative captions, rallying cries have spread across the internet urging users to participate in social change as much as possible.

One of these rallying cries brought back a centuries old phrase. Jean-Jacques Rousseau said in the context of the French Revolution and its aftermath, “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.” This sentiment has returned in 2019 and 2020 in the United States, especially as class divides become even more apparent in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The phrase “Eat the Rich!” can be seen in captions, videos, and even as a spoken phrase. Rallies and protests have seen signs with the words “eat the rich” written upon them and cities have heard the ring of those words in the form of chants. It is important to understand that in the 21st century, “Eat the Rich!” is referring to the top 1 percent, the companies, corporations, and government officials who have profited off the suffering of others. This phrase is not geared towards upper middle class families, a common misconception that has created a backlash. Instead, it is geared toward the city of New York for installing new, high tech security measures to ensure payment for the subway and toward huge companies who directly contribute to climate change as we watch an entire state burn. These are just a few examples, but the class resentment is very apparent and perhaps rightly so.

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99 percent protest. Andrea Mihali. Source: Creative Commons

In 2016 and 2019, American families were able to save substantially, according to the Federal Reserve data. Despite that, the wealth inequality did not shift much, and this was all before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The facts and figures of the Federal Reserve and the Survey of Consumer Finances of the past few years show a higher median income. Though these depict an improvement, the savings most Americans have do not even compare to the rates of savings before the 2008 recession and the amount of wealth the 1 percent has is nearing a three-decade high. To put this in perspective, in 1989 the top 1 percent held almost 30 percent of the United States wealth. In 2016, this number about 40 percent, and it has not shifted lower since. Stocks and other assets are starkly concentrated within the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, with the median family within this 10 percent holding about $780,000 worth of stocks. For the bottom 25 percent of Americans, this number barely reaches over $2,000. This comparison disproves the performance of the stock market as a sign of success for Americans in general, a claim President Trump often makes.

This income gap is much starker when racial disparities are taken into account. The median wealth of a black family is less than 15 percent that of a white family’s net worth. For black families, this is $24,100 in comparison to white families’ $188,200 in 2019. The median wealth for Hispanic families reached $36,100. It is becoming increasingly clear that the gap is widening due to black and Hispanic families being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus outbreak. With the impact of coronavirus comes a sharp increase in unemployment for low skill worker and high interaction jobs, jobs primarily offered to Hispanic and black workers due to the rampant discrimination in the American job market.

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Jeff Bezos. Steve Jurvetson. Source: Creative Commons.

The top of the top 1 percent in the United States is Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon. In August of 2020, Bezos became the first person to ever be worth over $200 billion dollars. Without a doubt, he is the world’s richest person at 56 years old. The third richest person in the world, LVMH chair Bernard Arnault, is $90 billion dollars poorer than Jeff Bezos. Amazon is one of world’s wealthiest companies and has profited greatly from the pandemic, much at the expense of its workers. The workers at Amazon have been providing essential supplies in a quick and secure fashion to quarantined individuals all across the world. While Bezos and the company of Amazon profit, these workers feel as if their own health and safety are being exchanged for Bezos’ next billion dollars. Amazon responded to the outbreak with the bear minimum: a temporary increase in wages by $2 an hour and implementing measures like temperature checks. In April, hundreds of Amazon workers protested the way Amazon had been handling the coronavirus outbreak by calling in sick to work. Groups like Amnesty International very quickly issued public responses in support of the workers and demanding Bezos respond to his workers requests. The manipulation and abuse of influence by Jeff Bezos has not been a new phenomenon.

In 2017, Bezos was awarded the National Equality Award by the Human Rights Campaign for his work in support of LGBTQ+ rights. He had pledged over $2 million in 2012 for the fight for same-sex marriage. A year after being honored by this award, Bezos and his wife each wrote checks for $5,400 to Colorado Senator Cory Gardner’s campaign, a Republican senator known for his anti-LGBTQ agenda. $5,400 is the maximum amount of money an individual can give to anyone seeking office, and eight other Amazon representatives followed Bezos example by donating the same amount of money to Gardner’s campaign. While Senator Gardner’s anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments may not be the sole reasoning behind the large Amazon support, it is incredibly hypocritical that in 2017 Bezos graciously accepted a human rights award for his work for the LGBTQ+ community.

Amazon.com
Amazon building. Robert Scoble. Source: Creative Commons.

In 2018, Amazon employees sent a letter to Bezos requesting that he stop selling the Amazon face surveillance product to law enforcement. They stated that it was a tool used to direct violate human rights. The letter came just a few days after the ACLU and other community partners delivered petition signatures, a coalition letter, and a shareholder letter to Amazon regarding the same subject of the dangers of the face surveillance product.

These are just a few examples of how a member of the top 1 percent is able to push their own agenda and further the widening income inequality gap to line their own pockets. Jeff Bezos is the richest person in the world and is a primary contributor of the income gap in the United States. The rallying cry “Eat the Rich!” is aimed in the direction of Bezos and those like him including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Walmart’s Walton family. This is not a call to cannibalism but is instead a call to action. The income inequality in America is devastating and tax holes and other mechanisms designed to keep the rich, rich and the poor, poor must be held accountable. The Covid-19 pandemic made the system inequity even more apparent and people are ready to fight to make the United States a more equitable place.

Is Internet Access a Human Right?

Introduction

My sister is in middle school.

She is in VIRTUAL middle school, spending almost all her time in her room physically and mentally connected to her computer for more than five hours a day, Monday to Friday.

Two weeks ago, our family received a voucher in the mail giving us the chance to receive internet service for free until December 30th, 2020. The vouchers come from a program known as the Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) for Students. The goal for this program is to provide “Broadband for Every K-12 Student.” ABC uses money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act directed to Alabama ($100 million) in order to cover the costs of “installation, equipment, and monthly service” to all students “who receive free or reduced-price lunches at school.” Families who earn less than 185% of the federal poverty level ($48,470) are those considered eligible for the vouchers, including 450,000 children enrolled in the National School Lunch Program.

Which brings me to the topic of this blog post: Internet Access, and why it is so important given this day and age.

Now, I know what you might be thinking, “Yes, the coronavirus is still a major issue among governments today, and since people cannot really gather outside in large groups, the internet is the next best option. That’s why it is so important to have access to it.” Great, at least you understood that part, but what if I told you that there are governments around the world shutting down the internet, from India to Russia and even countries like Indonesia, in the attempt to resolve their problems?

Shocking right? I would personally think so.

But before we talk about Internet Access as a potential human right, let us talk about some of the things that we take for granted when we have internet access.

An image of a world map in blue showing lines representing connectivity across countries.
2015 Global Connectivity Index. Source: geobrava.wordpress.com. Creative Commons

How do we benefit from being online?

Instant Communication

    • We often tend to talk to others by text, rather than face-to-face. Texting allows people to communicate in speeds never thought possible in the past, which leads to an eventual disconnect in establishing a fully personal connection that people would have if they interacted in person.

Homework

    • Especially during these times, we need the internet in order to complete our homework, and not having that access most definitely leads to an inability to do work as efficiently as if we had access to the World Wide Web.

Yes, even the Weather

    • How many people check the weather before leaving their homes? Checking the weather resides among the most popular search terms, which makes sense, as people need it to avoid downpours and be prepared to any eventual changes in plans.

Opinions against Internet Access being a Human Rights

Reflecting on the above benefits really does help broaden one’s vision in understanding how connecting to google.com or other web sites is essential to the daily happenings of our lives. It makes sense to simply call access to the internet a human right because of the way most of us use the internet to live our lives more efficiently.

Well, before we explore the arguments why Internet Access should be a human right, let us look at two perspectives to the contrary, an NYT op-ed by Vinton Cerf, an “Internet pioneer and [who] is recognized as one of ‘the fathers of the Internet,'” and a statement by Commissioner Michael O’Rielly of the Federal Communications Commission.

According to Cerf, for something to be considered a human right, it “must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives,” In that end, he argues that access to the Internet should be an enabler of rights, but not a right itself.

“It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category (of human rights), since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things.” — Vinton Cerf

He then attempts to clarify the lines at which human rights and civil rights should be drawn, concluding his op-ed with an understanding that access is simply a means “to improve the human condition.” Granting and ensuring human rights should utilize the internet, not make access the human right itself.

While Cerf seems to believe that the internet is a necessity for people but not a human right, O’Rielly believes otherwise, making it neither a necessity nor a human right.

In a speech before the Internet Innovation Alliance in 2015, Michael O’Rielly introduces his guiding principles with a personal anecdote about his life, emphasizing the impact that technology has given him, even going so far as to claim it as “one of the greatest loves of [his] life, besides [his] wife.” Despite this personal love for technology, one of his governing principles is to clarify what he believes the term ‘necessity’ truly means. He claims that it is unreasonable to even consider access to the internet as a human right or a necessity, as people can live and function without the presence of technology.

“Instead, the term ‘necessity’ should be reserved to those items that humans cannot live without, such as food, shelter, and water.” — Michael O’Rielly

O’Rielly attempts to make the distinction between the true sense of the word ‘necessity’ and ‘human rights,’ trying to defend against “rhetorical traps” created by movements towards making Internet Access a human right. These definitions are the basis of his governing principles and how he attempts to create Internet policies with the government and ISPs (Internet Service Providers).

Opinions for Internet Access being a Human Right

One of the interesting things to note above is the distinction made between one’s need for Internet Access and its categorization into a human right. Today, many if not all businesses require the usage of the Internet, going so far as to purely rely on its presence for regular business transactions and practices to occur. This understanding of the importance of the internet is prevalent now more than ever. The onset of COVID-19 has forced businesses to shut their physical door, allowed for increased traffic of online e-commerce sites like Amazon, and pushed kids towards utilizing platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet as substitutes for attending school. As such, these next few paragraphs will discuss why Internet Access is, in fact, a human right.

Violations to internet access are prevalent around the world, ranging from countries like India and Sri Lanka to others like Iran and Russia, aiming to either curb resistance or reduce potential sparks of violence. In India, for example, the government had shut down access to the Internet for Indian-administered Kashmir, an action that brought the condemnation of UN special rapporteurs, where the regions of Jammu and Kashmir experienced a “near total communications blackout, with internet access, mobile phone networks, and cable cut off.” In Sri Lanka, only specific applications are blocked by the authorities, while Iran works to slow “internet speeds to a crawl.” The internet system in Russia allows for it to seem like it functions while no data is sent to servers. These systems aim to restrict journalists from spreading news about violations of human rights while also limiting people’s ability to freely express themselves.

The Wi-Fi symbol, with a cross through it.
Offline Logo. Source: Wikmedia Commons. Creative Commons.

This attempt to curb the spread of information also violates Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which India and Iran voted in favor, the Soviet Union abstained, and Sri Lanka was nonexistent during its passage (accepted by the General Assembly in 1948).

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” — Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Conclusion

There seems to be a fundamental agreement from many experts ranging from the United Nations to organizations like Internet.org that aim to connect people with others around the world, that Internet Access should become, or already is, a basic human right. Although arguments are made that the internet allows for freedom of speech and enable other rights to exist, accessibility to that medium of communication and connection should be guaranteed as food or water. Although the internet is not needed for physical survival, the internet is a requirement for advancement and productivity in life.

Which brings me back to the first point made. I am thankful to have a family and live in a home where I can access information and write blog posts about human rights all around the world. What about those living within my city, my state, the United States, or even Planet Earth who do not have that access to the Internet? What about people that cannot connect with people miles away from them, or people who cannot receive an education due to the environmental factors that affect us now.

Access to the internet is a critically important task that governments, local, state, and federal, all need to act upon in order for a successful and growing economy, not just for current businesses and enterprises, but for the future leaders of our country. It is during these trying times that disparities and inequities are revealed, and those in power must be held accountable for a connected and thriving population to exist.

An image of a man in a blue suit holding a tablet with a hologram of the world map shining above.
Source: PickPik. Creative Commons.

If you would like to learn more about Internet Equality and the case for Net Neutrality, I encourage you to read my previous blog post “Internet Equality: A Human Rights Issue?”

Diversity in COVID-19 Trials

Man using micropipette to perform COVID-19 test
State Public Health Laboratory in Exton Tests for COVID-19. Source: Governor Tom Wolf, Creative Commons.

Since COVID-19 became a pandemic, researchers have been rushing to develop an effective vaccine. There has been a lot of progress made in a short amount of time, but one barrier that every trial in the United States is facing is a lack of diversity within the trials. This is not uncommon for modern research trials, as the majority of participants are typically white and males. However, for a trial to demonstrate effectiveness and appropriate dose for the population, the study population needs to be representative of the whole population at risk.

When studies don’t have a diverse study population, there are adverse outcomes and side effects that are not accounted for. For example, about one in five medications has a different recommended dose across different racial and ethnic populations. This means that without diverse trials, doctors won’t know how safe the medicines that they prescribe their patients actually are.

For the COVID-19 vaccine trials, the issue of diversity is particularly important because people of color, specifically the Latinx and Black communities, are not only three times more likely to contract COVID-19 than white Americans, but they’re also twice as likely to die. Despite this health inequity, people of color only make up 29% of participants in the vaccine trial with the most diversity. This is an improvement from most studies, but still not representative of the affected population: 49.9% of the United States population is not white, and people of color experience severe cases of COVID-19 at a higher rate.

But why is it so hard to achieve representative diversity in trials? The main reason is that the United States has a history of taking advantage of people of color when performing medical studies. One of the most glaring examples of this is the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” in which almost 400 Black men were diagnosed with syphilis and left untreated. They were promised free food and physicals but were never informed of their diagnosis. Despite the discovery of penicillin, which is an effective treatment for syphilis, while the trial was still ongoing, none of the men involved in the study were ever treated. Because of this, many of them died, and many of their wives and children also contracted syphilis. The study ended after 40 years when a public health service investigator informed the press of what was going on.

The Tuskegee Study was devastating for the men who unknowingly participated and their families, but the effects did not stop with them. Because of the dishonesty within this study, Black American patients are less likely to trust their doctors and the medical system as a whole. A study done by Marcella Alsan and Marianne Wanamaker showed that immediately following the news of the Tuskegee Study, health outcomes, trust of medical professionals, and life expectancy all decreased, which shows not only a social effect but a physical one.

Mural of Henrietta Lacks with description "Henrietta Lacks, a poor black farmer, died in 1951 of cervical cancer. Her tumor cells were taken without her knowledge, and became the first human culture cells because they were found to divide indefinitely. Her cells have saved countless lives. Jannai B"
Henrietta Lacks. Source: yooperann, Creative Commons.

Another case that plants seeds of distrust towards the medical community is the case of Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was an Black American woman being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins in the early 1950s. During treatment, and without her knowledge, doctors took samples of her cervical cells to see if they would replicate in culture, which they did. HeLa cells, as they are now called, were a huge breakthrough for medical research, but it was done without Lacks’ knowledge and consent. Additionally, her family received no compensation and has only recently gotten a say and acknowledgement in research that uses HeLa cells. Because of these two injustices, many Black Americans have little trust in the medical systems.

Black Americans are less likely to seek medical treatment and participate in trials, which leads to worse health outcomes immediately and for future generations. Because they are less likely to seek medical treatment, conditions will worsen before seeing a doctor, and treatment in later stages is more costly—financially and personally. Additionally, because of the lack of participation in trials, as discussed earlier, we don’t know about the presentation of diseases and the side effects that people of color experience. The small percentage of Black Americans that do participate in trials are often reminded by their friends and family of the injustices of the past, urging them not to participate.

How do we fix this problem? This issue is deeper than implementing policies to require more diversity, protect research participants, and ensure they have the full knowledge of the trial before going into it; all of that has already been done, and these policies have done little to increase diversity in trials. What is really needed now is to build back trust. To do this completely will take decades, but for now there are some short term plans.

To increase diversity in COVID-19 vaccine trials, pharmaceutical companies are enlisting historically Black medical schools, such as Meharry Medical College and Morehouse School of Medicine, to carry out trials. Studies have found that patients that have similar racial and ethnic backgrounds to their physicians trust their doctors more. By using this information, these predominantly black medical schools, which predominantly serve Black patients, are able to reassure their patients that the study that they are enrolling in will not repeat history.

While the effort of diversifying trials is important for COVID-19 trials, it must not end there. Many people are trying to publicize the safeguards that all studies have today, which prevent any injustices like what happened in the Tuskegee Study and in the collection of cells from Henrietta Lacks. However, this information must come from people that the patients trust. The medical community must work to rebuild trust in communities of color so that we can decrease the health inequities experienced and understand the safety of medications and vaccines for the whole population instead of just for white males.

Mesothelioma Cancer: The Ongoing Saga Of Asbestos Usage In The United States


 

A flyer with a blue ribbon that says Mesolethoma Awareness Day Sept. 26, 2020
Source: The author

Between the 1920s to 1980s, the use of asbestos was at an all-time high in the United States. From construction to the military, asbestos was utilized in a variety of different industries. Unfortunately, this abundant usage has led to the discovery of some serious health complications. Asbestos is a known human carcinogen and people who closely worked with this naturally occurring mineral are facing the consequences. One of the most common diseases associated with asbestos exposure is mesothelioma cancer, and it continues to be diagnosed to this day. With the United States not fully banning usage of asbestos, there seems to be no end in sight of its damaging effects.

What Is Asbestos?

As previously mentioned, asbestos is a mineral that is found in abundance across the United States. It’s known for its tensile strength, sound absorption and heat resistance, making it an unmatched additive at the height of its usage. Products such as flooring tiles, roofing tiles and insulation incorporated asbestos, because in the event of a fire, it could slow the burning process. This was also true when it came to usage in the military. The Navy incorporated asbestos in different areas of ships such as the boiler room and sleeping barracks. Asbestos was also great because it doesn’t degrade easily in water, making it a no brainer for use in ships. With that being said, when asbestos does degrade is when it can cause the most harm to the health of humans.

Asbestos Exposure And Health Complications

Asbestos that is degrading or damaged can release fibers into the air. These needle-like microscopic fibers can be inhaled or ingested by humans, causing damage to our internal organs. They get embedded in the linings of our lungs, heart and abdomen where they cause inflammation and scarring to occur. Over the course of 10 to 50 years, tumors may develop and this can lead to the diagnosis of mesothelioma cancer. Symptoms of this disease are minimal, and often mimic those of less severe illnesses. Coughing, shortness of breath, lack of appetite, chest pain and fever are all symptoms of mesothelioma, but unfortunately, when symptoms do appear, the disease has usually progressed into a later stage. Another disease that asbestos exposure can lead to is asbestosis, a chronic lung condition that heightens the risk of developing mesothelioma.

An image of asbestos fibers
Source: The author

Who Does This Disease Affect?

The two largest populations that are diagnosed with mesothelioma are military veterans and construction industry professionals. The reason for this is that servicemen and women who worked on Navy ships and military bases were directly in contact with asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) on a daily basis, as is true of the majority of construction professionals. Working with ACMs without the proper protective equipment is typically how someone will end up being diagnosed with mesothelioma. Asbestos fibers can cling to clothing and stay airborne for several hours, so for those working with these materials everyday, exposure is extremely prevalent. While rules and regulations have gotten better surrounding asbestos exposure, these two groups are still disproportionately affected, many of whom still are unaware of the dangers of asbestos despite there being more research.

A fence with yellow caution tape that says Asbestos Dust Hazard
Source: The author

Why Is Asbestos Not Fully Banned?

While asbestos usage in the United States has become more regulated, it is still not fully banned. Asbestos is allowed in up to 1% of certain products and plays a key role in the chlor-alkali (chlorine) industry. As of April 2019, a “final rule” regarding asbestos usage had been issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) detailing more regulations to limit exposure. These regulations were as followed:

  • The public is protected from uses of asbestos that are no longer on the market and are not covered under any other laws. 
  • The EPA is not allowing new uses of asbestos
  • Uses of asbestos covered under the 1989 partial ban will stay banned.

Researchers, experts and the public have been upset with this new ruling, as it still does not take into consideration the legacy usages of asbestos as well as all of the preexisting ACMs that are across the country to this day. There are currently 67 countries with full asbestos bans and it is unfortunate that the United States continues to let the public be harmed from such a dangerous carcinogen.

Help Spread Awareness

September 26th marks the 17th anniversary of Mesothelioma Awareness Day (MAD). Help spread awareness by sharing information about asbestos exposure with your loved ones and educating them about the serious health dangers it poses.

High School Student Perspectives on the Duel Pandemics Facing Our Country

A picture of Breakthrough students and instructors making silly faces
Source: Breakthrough Birmingham

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to talk to Breakthrough Birmingham students about human rights. Breakthrough Birmingham is an affiliate of the Breakthrough Collaborative, an educational program in which college students from across the U.S. teach high school students in traditionally underrepresented communities in an effort to reverse educational inequity and help students achieve post-secondary success. This summer, Breakthrough went fully virtual, and although this had its challenges, I was amazed at how successfully the leadership pivoted and stayed committed to providing quality education for the students. During our time together, the students and I talked about what human rights are and different examples of human rights violations, particularly those related to the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-Black police brutality and injustice. As part of our class, I invited students to write for the IHR blog, to reflect on how the duel pandemics of Covid and racial injustice are impacting their lives and what they hope to see happen in the future. While the conversation rages over how to resolve these crises, the voices of our nation’s young people are often lost in the noise. But they are certainly an important part of this conversation, as they will inherit the world that we leave them and be left with either a huge mess to clean up or a legacy of progress to carry forward. I wanted to share two essays from Breakthrough students Jeremy and Charles. 

Jeremy*

One day I was in school learning like normal, then bam! The world suddenly changed. I am going to be talking about Covid-19, aka coronavirus. It is very important to talk about this because people are dying daily and more and more families are suffering from the recovery of their losses. It is impacting how stores handle things and how we make money. Personally, I am uncomfortable with this situation going on, and I do not like it at all. It is really bad for me and everyone else on this planet. It is boring having to stay inside my home for an extended amount of time. When Covid first arrived I was actually excited that I was able to stay home. After a while though it started getting really boring, now I want to go back to school to see my friends.

I have mixed emotions about this. Like I said earlier staying home was great! I was all happy and joyful that I was able to stay home and sleep in as much as I wanted. Now I am just waiting until I can escape and go to school like normal!

In the world today, there are a lot of changes I want to happen. First of all, there is a lot going on while in quarantine. All the violence, Kanye West running for president, the “Karens,” aka the people who refuse to wear masks because of their president’s orders, and the other stuff that shouldn’t be allowed to happen. I think there are a lot of ways we can make this change. For example, the Black Lives Matter protests are attempting to make positive change.

The schools are already helping us students make that change, by sending quizzes on if we should go back to school, rotate days, or just do virtual learning. I think I could have my family go out more to make the experience more normal.

After all this mess going on I would like to just say this, don’t worry! I know a lot is going on right now, and it is just messy all around, but we will get through this! It will definitely be over soon, but it will still feel like it is lasting forever. If you know what I mean. Staying positive during this pandemic is key. I always like to stay as positive as possible. Just like any other person, I have experienced things that shouldn’t be happening on a daily basis! On the bright side, this whole situation does make me feel thankful and alive because I am able to spend more quality time with my family.

The pandemic has made me feel like I can handle that anything comes my way. This is not always the case though. Everyone in the world may feel strong, prepared, ready, but who can tell us what’s coming? This really tells us how anything can happen with just a snap of the finger! From sunny skies to dark clouds and thunder. From daily life to Covid-19.

A photo of Jeremy, the author, holding a peace sign above his head
“Jeremy” Source: the author

*Jeremy will be attending Ramsey High School, and his favorite subject is science. His hobbies include walking his dog, riding his bike, building houses online, and conducting science experiments. He aspires to be an architect, and when asked what inspires him, he notes, “New construction inspires me.”

Charles**

Many people are affected by anti-Black police brutality. Many people are killed due to this, particularly, George Floyd’s death, which was recently in the spotlight. Anti-Black police brutality does not just stop there. Celebrities, such as Jay Pharaoh, have faced police brutality because of the color of their skin. This topic is important because this is an ongoing problem that needs to be stopped. I understand what it is like to have friends and family who are police officers, but we still need to hold them accountable.

I feel distraught every time that I think about police brutality. I have to face the thought of being a victim of police brutality. It makes it harder now because everywhere I go I’m scared that I might be beaten by the police. It does not get any easier. Now the thought of driving is becoming a reality, and that idea fills me with fear. My mom for instance constantly talks about how to approach an officer if I were ever stopped. This is a thing that most African American parents talk about or should talk about with their kids.This is important to me because I cannot predict if I will or will not be one of those victims of police brutality.

My experience with this topic is hearing about people being beaten by the cops.  Also, I have recently seen these things in the media. I’ve had experiences in which I, personally, was scared to call the police because I thought I would be the next victim of police brutality. I never had an encounter in which I was beaten by the police, but seeing events like this occur on the news and social media platforms impacts how I see the police force in the United States.

I know that no matter how many protests we assemble, the act of police brutality will never end. As human beings, sometimes we have to make compromises. I think we can solve this problem by making sure police officers swear to not brutalize innocent people based on race. This should be a part of the oath they swear by, and there should be punishments for not complying with this oath. According to a New York Times article, in 2019, 59% of Police-reported uses of force in Minneapolis were used on African Americans. This statistic shows that African Americans are most likely to face police brutality. A DoSomething.org article shows that in New York City in 2018, 88% of police stops involved Black and Latinx people. The article also states that 70% of those who were stopped were completely innocent. I do think that police officers should be held culpable for their actions. These statistics are examples of African Americans being more likely to face police brutality or harassment.

I think that instead of being more accepting of different races and cultures white Americans are being more hateful towards minorities, especially Black people.  The ongoing anti-Black police brutality has made me grow more furious each and every day. Systemic racism and politicians lead white people to misinterpret the reality of life as Black people in America. White Americans should use their privilege to educate themselves and use their voices to advocate with Black people instead of using their voices for ignorance. Rather than learning new Tik Tok dances or trying to go viral, people should utilize their voice and the endless resources available to educate themselves and their followers on the history and present state of our nation.

A head shot of Charles, the author
“Charles” Source: the author

** Charles will be attending Ramsey High School, and he likes all of his classes, especially science. His hobbies include reading and poetry. He aspires to be an entrepreneur, and when asked what inspires him, he mentions his parents and “knowing he can put his all and mind into anything he wants to achieve.”

Gender and Sexuality at School: Experiences of young people and teachers in combating prejudice in Brazilian schools

By Fabricio Pupo*

A graphic of the international symbols of man and woman with various gender signs on their faces
Source: Yahoo Images
Graphic showing insecurity related to gender and sexuality in school environment
Source: The author (2019)/Graphic Design: AleMaciell

Gender and sexuality issues are not often discussed, especially in the school environment. The reasons are innumerable, and they have been historically considered controlled themes. In Brazil, the data relating to violence and prejudice are alarming and refer to the discussion of institutional security, especially within environments that are more closely linked to these young people such as school. This statement is verified when analyzing the 2016 data from the Brazilian Association of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transsexuals (ABGLT) on dissenting gender and sexuality youth in the school environment, of which 60.2% of young people feel insecure in their educational institution due to their sexual orientation and 42.8% for the way they express their gender.

Prejudice in the face of experiences outside heteronormativity can silence young people and teachers in the school setting. School is often an arsenal that regulates not only sexuality but also gender.

Graphic depicting statistics on comfort around gender and sexuality topics in school environment
Source: ABGLT (2016)/ Reprolatina (2011)

Silence in the face of the theme and oppression in relation to teaching work

The discourse that school, gender, and sexuality must constitute separate instances has been gaining strength. Reactions such as the Escola Sem Partido Program have motivated the persecution of teachers on charges of political and ideological indoctrination. It emerged in 2004, through the initiative of the attorney of the State of São Paulo, Miguel Nagib, and it has a threatening effect on teachers across the country. It seeks to criminalize teaching work around themes such as gender and sexuality. It is no coincidence that gender and sexuality are part of the themes that the defenders of this initiative point out as being the most permeable to ideological indoctrination since the persecution of these themes constituted an alignment with the agendas of the religious group representing a part of the population that supports moral precepts linked to the extreme right and Christianity.
The need for teaching work in this theme is corroborated by the National Curriculum Parameters (NCPs), they place these themes as transversal and relevant for discussion in educational establishments as well as for the pedagogical intervention process. NCPs are guidelines developed by the Federal Government that guide education in Brazil. They are separated by discipline and adopted by the public and private schools.

The school is a space where it is possible to observe the emergence of the visibility of dissenting gender and sexuality as well as conflicts over these experiences that seek to affirm forms of life hitherto subjugated. However, there are also positive experiences regarding the valuation of gender and sexuality differences at school.
Therefore, the interest in analyzing such experiences evaluated as positive by young people and teachers in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in the central-west region of Brazil. The intention was to prioritize the reports that were evaluated by the participants as positive to better understand how they resist a prejudiced reality, which allowed a reflection not only on gender and sexuality but also on the agency of the participants concerning this theme in school institutions of different contexts.

Youth Experiences

School is a very important space for socialization, and it is part of the teacher’s job to ensure this interaction by attending to all representations. The young 20-year-old Sofia, from a private school pointing out something positive affirmed that “the teachers discuss and work on these themes in the classroom”. That corroborates the importance of making the discussion about gender and sexuality common every day.

Aurora, 19 years old, from a private school, in turn, says that she lived “an assumed relationship with a colleague at school”, which points out that, in addition to possible environments for discussion on this topic, the school also makes it a possible experience. The homosexual relationship is seen as different and the school acts positively on this issue when it allows the relationship to be seen.

In terms of school dropout, trans experiences seem to be the ones that stand out the most. For this reason, José Francisco, 25 years old, from a private school, reported: “At school, in high school, I was able to use the bathroom of the kind in which I identify myself. All of this was important, as school avoidance is avoided and dysphoria is reduced, enabling a better use of studies, which was my case”.

Graphic depicting positive experiences school can provide
Source: The author (2019) /Graphic Design: AleMaciell

In their school experience, as well as that of many young people, the fact that they can use the bathroom according to their gender identity is the validation of the school’s acceptance of this difference. Another important acceptance reference cited by José Francisco is the social name and the comfort it can generate. According to him, “My positive experience at school took place in some ways … with the social name respected by all employees, teachers and coordinators. The name was on lists, in the closet, in the call and the like”. We can understand what the use of the social name and the bathroom might represent, when we are faced with indexes related to the violence suffered by the trans population. According to the National Association of Transvestites and Transsexuals – ANTRA, in Brazil, 90% of transgender people depend on prostitution to survive.

Teacher’s Experiences

The school is an important space for socialization and discussion, the teacher has a fundamental role in this mediation. In this sense, Rafael, 35 years old, from a private school, informs that the first posture he has is to verify how young dissidents of gender and sexuality are treated by colleagues, then he has a welcoming attitude: “When I notice some isolation and others signs of suffering I try to talk to the person and ask for permission to speak with the coordination and psychologists “. When recognizing the difference in the school environment a teacher meets his daily challenges and at that moment his or her attitude may or may not collaborate with freedom and the recognition of different representations of gender and sexuality within this space.

It is not uncommon that when this theme appears it is linked to certain control efforts through great strategies of knowledge and power. Marcelo, 28, from a private school, positively does not directly refer to a threat: “I try to explain that this feeling for the same sex is normal”. However, he justifies in the sequence: “but I mention the importance of using condoms to prevent STDs”.

Here, it is not a question of questioning the importance of guidelines about the prevention of this type of infection/disease, still there is a risk of restricting the experience of sexuality to a certain threat. One way to avoid this type of approach is to bet on the pedagogical and curricular policy of identity and difference. Teachers who have participated in this research feel unprepared to put this policy into practice. Ana, 42 years old, from a public school, justified this lack of preparation due to the complexity of the theme, pointing to the effects that this might present: “If we are not well grounded we risk to reinforce what has been put in place for centuries”. However, she affirmed that she is interested in the theme and this makes her look for authors that can be helpful to her, but she does not believe that this can happen to all teachers. This scenario points to the urgency of actions that promote a fairer school and that above all, guarantees human rights, for example, the integration of Public Policies, mentioned in the NCPs for sexual orientation. However, the school, or at least part of the teaching staff, seems to be unaware of these policies which hinders practices and attitudes that can promote the resignification of the school space for young dissidents.

Examples of how teachers can create supportive environments that facilitate productive discourse and experience around LGTB issues
Source: The author (2019) /Graphic Design: AleMaciell

Toward a More Welcoming School

Young people’s experiences show us the importance of bringing the discussion about gender and sexuality to a daily practice within the school environment as we could realize how can the school be a possible place for the awareness of dissident experiences in terms of gender and sexuality. The evasion problem especially of transvestite and transsexual people appeared with the indication of the need to call people by the name that corresponds to their gender identity as well as the authorization for the use of the bathroom by that same self-assigned identity.

Teachers’ experiences value the welcoming attitude toward young dissidents of gender and sexuality which should be demarcated by the recognition of the difference in the school environment. The positive experience of dealing with these themes does not mean that they cannot be linked to speeches that may present them as a possible threat, as an example when dissident affective-sexual experiences are associated with diseases. Even so, some teachers are looking for more knowledge to approach the theme as they do not feel prepared to approach the theme from the perspective of the curricular policy of identity and difference.

Graphic depicting welcoming potential of school to LGTB students
Source: The author (2019)/Graphic Design: AleMaciell

Finally, even though the NCPs proposing to approach the theme in a transversal way, the legislation seems insufficient to guarantee in the curriculum the presence of the theme in the school as it should be taught. However, even so, the school presents itself as a possible place to resist attempts to criminalize teaching work around gender and sexuality. It is not a matter of minimizing the moral effects of the School without Party Program rather however young and teachers act independently of a “desire” in short they are involved in power relations, there are positive examples that seem to make the difference in terms of gender and sexuality, an experience that can be recognized at school.

*Fabricio Pupo Antunes is a 3rd-year high school student at Colégio Novaescola in Campo Grande – Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. He is a junior researcher in gender and sexuality, supervised by Prof. Dr. Tiago Duque at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul, where he is also a member of Impróprias – Research Group about Gender, Sexuality and Differences (UFMS – CNPq). His research has been awarded in important scientific fairs, seminars, and academic congresses in Brazil and abroad with Regeneron ISEF, a finalist in the Behavioral Sciences area this year.