As an avid lover of visiting museums, it is important to hold them accountable when their exhibitions can have damaging implications. History and science museums can be among the most fascinating places to visit, as the world has such a rich scientific history. However, there is a fine line between preserving a specific piece of history and exploiting groups of people in the name of science. In recent years, several museums have come under fire for capitalizing on the exploitation of ethnic groups and glorifying the world’s hurtful history of colonialism, imperialism, and the oppression of marginalized peoples.
In recent years, attention has been paid to the sources of acquisition that many popular museums in the United States use. One of the most recent is the American Museum of Natural History, located in Manhattan, New York, and its exhibitions contain the remains of indigenous people.
What is Colonialism?
Colonialism is a practice in which domination over a specific area is carried out by another foreign state. Colonialism has been and is used as a way to consolidate political or economic gain and always leads to the complete subjugation, or conquest, of the people in the colonized area. The foundation of America was built on colonialism, dating back to before the nation was even established. While there are records of British colonies existing prior to the 1600s, the 17th century marked the beginning of the first permanent colonies.
The Jamestown Colony was created in Virginia in 1607. Long before the establishment of any colonies in the New World, or present-day America, Native Americans were the first to live on American soil. The region in which the Jamestown colony arrived was the same region as the Powhatan people, an Indian tribe. On many occasions, there would be violent encounters between the tribe and colonists. When establishing colonies in the New World, colonists would bring diseases like tuberculosis and smallpox. While they had immunity to these microbes, they would be fatal for the local Native American population.
As the 17th century progressed, the relationship between colonists and Native Americans would significantly weaken. For instance, King Philip’s War occurred in 1675 after the execution of three members of the Wampanoag people by the government of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. This war is known as one of the deadliest conflicts in American history, with the amount of casualties reaching extreme heights throughout the 14-month period of the war.
Even after America was established as a country, harmful practices against Indigenous Americans continued to be considered legal. Hundreds of thousands of Indians—particularly Indian youth—were forced to assimilate. Cultural assimilation is extremely damaging for multiple reasons. It normalizes public stigmatization of the affected groups and erases their cultural identity.
Not only has the American Museum of Natural History come under fire for exhibiting the remains of thousands of Native Americans, but also for acquiring the bones of five Black adults who were buried in a cemetery for enslaved people. This brings an important conversation of eugenics, where bodies were exploited and used as “scientific property” against their will. The presence of eugenics and other scientific thoughts entrenched in racism and white supremacy have allowed for other forms of oppression against marginalized groups—specifically Black Americans—like medical racism and healthcare bias. These connections make the museum’s acquisition of these remains even more problematic.
Another museum that has come under fire for its exhibitions is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in D.C. While this exhibition does not involve human remains, the exploitation of a group of marginalized people under colonialism remains present. The museum held 29 bronze sculptures that originally belonged to the Kingdom of Benin. The Kingdom of Benin was established during the pre-colonial period of what is now southern Nigeria. The sculptures were seized by British military and colonial forces during a raid in 1897. This raid also resulted in the burning of the city and the deaths of the people who inhabited it
Real estate developers Paul and Ruth Tishman collected the Benin sculptures and sold them to the Walt Disney Company in 1984. In 2007, they were donated to the Smithsonian. Without thinking about the implications the sources of acquisition of their exhibition pieces have, the Smithsonian turned a blind eye to their hurtful histories. Fortunately, the Smithsonian recognized this problem and removed the sculptures from public display in late 2021. Museum director Ngaire Blankenberg also enlisted the help of curators to find the places of origin for all pieces that had potential ties to the Kingdom of Benin raid.
Harvard’s Peabody Museum and Warren Anatomical Museum
The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Warren Anatomical Museum, both owned by Harvard University, recently repatriated the remains of over 300 Indigenous people back to the Wampanoag communities. The university completed the repatriation process in January of this year. Harvard has since aimed to create efforts to better understand and rethink the implications of sources of acquisition. For instance, the Peabody Museum created a virtual exhibit titled “Listening to Wampanoag Voices: Beyond 1620.” The exhibit includes oral histories given by various members of the Wampanoag community.
Why are Sources of Acquisition Important?
The term ‘acquisition‘ refers to an object purchased or given to an institution, such as a museum or library. ‘Sources of acquisition’ deals with the background of these objects, like their historical context and location of origin. If not taken into careful consideration, ignoring sources of acquisition can be harmful to the affected communities. It normalizes the idea that the oppression of people is something that can be glossed over in the name of science or a glorified museum exhibit. In the case of many museums collecting the remains of marginalized communities, it pushes the notion that the subjugation and exploitation of people are acceptable. As reflected earlier in this post, America was built on the institution of white supremacy and colonialism, which makes the sources of acquisition of exhibition pieces even more important to note
So, what can be done to right the wrongs of these museums? Taking the initiative to go through the repatriation process should always be considered. While this process entails a number of legal procedures that may not be completed within a specific timeframe, it is always worth the exhibition pieces being returned to the rightful institutions and people. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGRPA) was instated in 1990 and is a US federal law that facilitates the repatriation process. As of 2022, there have been many changes made to the NAGPRA. These changes include defining how objects are defined to better accommodate the cultural traditions and customs of the rightful descendants.
Similarly, hiring curators and anthropologists to analyze the origins of exhibitions can be helpful. Next, understanding shortcomings within the pieces a museum inherits through efforts like opening conversations about America’s history of colonialism, racism, and oppression of marginalized people. Giving a voice to those who have been affected by these harmful practices, like the Peabody Museum’s Wampanoag exhibit, is another way of allowing them to reclaim the hurt that has been done.
According to the United States Department of Education and Agriculture, sixteen states have underfunded their state’s land-grant, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), by more than $13 billion over the last thirty years. A land grant college or university is an institution designated by the state legislature to receive benefits under the Morrill Acts of 1890 and 1994. The act’s passing was to ensure that higher education would be accessible to all and not only wealthy individuals, being that before 1892, many of the United States institutes for Higher Education were privately funded and selective of who they allowed. It gave states the power to sell federal land to establish Public Institutions.
If HBCUs do not receive equitable funding, it can perpetuate inequities in educational outcomes and opportunities for underrepresented minority students. Understanding the history of HBCUs is essential to appreciate the significance of addressing underfunding. Many of these institutions were founded to address historical injustices, and chronic underfunding perpetuates these disparities, reinforcing the notion that Black students deserve fewer resources and opportunities than their white counterparts.
The History of HBCUs
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have a rich history of providing education to Black men and women in the United States. They emerged in the early 19th century, with institutions like Cheyney University of Pennsylvania in 1836 and Lincoln University in 1854 initially focusing on teacher training. Over time, these institutions broadened their curricula and became vital education centers for Black individuals, offering various academic programs.
During the Jim Crow era, which lasted from the late 19th century into the mid-20th century, racial segregation laws enforced strict separation of Black and White individuals in public facilities, including schools. Predominantly white institutions were often closed to Black students, and even if they were nominally open, they were often unwelcoming and discriminatory. HBCUs filled this void by providing Black students access to higher education when other options were limited or nonexistent. These institutions offered a safe and nurturing environment where Black individuals could pursue education and intellectual growth. However, these institutions have faced persistent challenges, including funding disparities that hinder their mission of providing equitable education. State funding policies that allocate resources to public higher education institutions are at the heart of these disparities.
Addressing the Disparities
In the letters sent to the governors of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. The Department of Education highlights the importance of HBCUs. The underinvestment of these institutions should be addressed, given that these institutions generate close to $15 billion and have considerable impacts on the predominantly black communities they serve.
The letter addressed to Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama, the Department of Education highlights the stark contrast between Alabama A&M University, the state’s first land-grant institution for African Americans, and Auburn University, the state’s first original land-grant institution, noting the differences in infrastructure and researching which Miguel Cardona, U.S Secretary of Education talks on saying that “Unacceptable funding inequities have forced many of our nation’s distinguished Historically Black Colleges and Universities to operate with inadequate resources and delay critical investments in everything from campus infrastructure to research and development to student support services.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, HBCUs have seen a massive enrollment increase despite a national decrease in college enrollments. During an interview with PBS News Hour, the President of Spelman College, an HBCU all-women’s college, Dr. Helene Gayle, attributed the increase in enrollment to an entire generation of young African Americans who have witnessed historic events. The inauguration of the first Black President of the United States, and the rise of movements such as Black Lives Matter and numerous instances of social injustice have motivated and encouraged young people to seek higher education in environments where they are surrounded by their community.
The increase in enrollment has caused some issues for many HBCUS, one being the need for more housing spaces to accommodate the influx of students. Tennessee State University has the most known case, with the university having to rent out five hotels for the 2022-2023 academic year. This has caused the Tennessee State Comptroller to come in and audit the University and their financial practices. Their report found that TSU had a “lack of planning, management, and sound decision-making.” TSU’s financial decisions play a part in the case. Still, one cannot deny that Tennessee underfunding Tennessee State University $2,147,784,704, the most of any other state, plays a role in their shortcomings. The University of Tennessee, the state’s original land grant-funded institution, has sixteen housing halls in Comparison to Tennessee State’s eight housing halls, including one that just opened in August of 2022.
Why HBCUs Matter
HBCUs have a rich history of contributing to research and innovation, often focusing on underrepresented areas in mainstream academia. Unfortunately, underfunding hampers their ability to invest in research projects, labs, and faculty development, affecting their capacity to compete for research grants and produce groundbreaking work. This lack of funding also hurts equity by limiting the contributions of Black professionals and academics in research, innovation, and industries like STEM.
Adequate funding is crucial for maintaining high educational standards, hiring qualified faculty, and offering up-to-date resources and facilities. When HBCUs receive less funding, it can lead to overcrowded classrooms, outdated technology, and limited course offerings. The disparity in educational quality can perpetuate inequities, particularly in the context of historically Black colleges and universities.
HBCUs have historically served as a pathway to higher education for Black students who were often excluded from predominantly white institutions due to racial segregation and discrimination. Inadequate funding can restrict their capacity to enroll and support students, limiting access to quality education. This impacts equity, making it harder for Black students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, to pursue higher education and achieve social mobility.
Underfunded HBCUs may receive a different education and preparation for future opportunities than students at well-funded institutions. Therefore, providing adequate funding to HBCUs is essential for promoting equity and ensuring Black students have access to quality education and opportunities.
Growing up, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by the pride and tradition of HBCUs. Being a native of Birmingham, Alabama, I have had the pleasure of experiencing the biggest HBCU football game, The Magic City Classic, every year. The way the community comes together to support their teams, regardless of the weather, is truly a unique and unforgettable experience.
Funding HBCUs appropriately not only demonstrates a commitment to inclusivity and solidarity with marginalized communities. These institutions are essential to a more just and prosperous future for all, as they continue to play a vital role in American education and culture. By recognizing the pivotal role of state funding policies, we can work towards a more equitable future where HBCUs receive the resources they need to provide quality education and continue their legacy of empowerment and opportunity. Public policy decisions at the state and federal levels directly impact HBCUs funding, support, and overall well-being. Advocacy, engagement with policymakers, and developing equitable policies are essential to addressing funding disparities and promoting equity in higher education for HBCUs.
Here is the list of every federal government-recognized HBCU in the United States. If there is one close to you, I encourage you to support one in any way you can, whether going to a sporting event or donating.
A Philosophical Take on the Detrimental Climate Effects of European Colonization in North America
I would like to begin by recognizing that the land I sit on while I write was stolen in cold blood by European colonizers. On a once flourishing forest valley now sits tons upon tons of concrete. On land once occupied and cared for by Creek and Choctaw peoples now sits freshly mowed yellow lawns painted blue, overflowing drainage pipes, and office buildings filled with tired, underpaid workers. It is with a heavy heart that I mourn the loss of Indigenous people and their cultures at the hands of greedy White supremacist colonizers. With this article, I do not wish to convey that climate effects are the only or the most detrimental result of European colonization and their genocide of Native peoples. Life, culture, language, and knowledge, to name a few, are some of the more immense losses. The purpose of this article is not to reduce this catastrophic event to solely how it affects the climate today but to bring attention and reverence to Indigenous philosophies, traditions, and ways of life that can inform our modern discussions of climate change.
As a precursor to this article’s more philosophical take, you may want to read about the historical contexts of colonization. In this case, please check out this article recently posted by my colleague here at the IHR, Kala Bhattar.
How do you provide for yourself and your family?
Your answer probably involves producing a product or carrying out a service that society deems valuable enough to attribute money to you for it. You then use that money to buy food, water, and shelter from those in your community who produce or own it. Money probably plays a huge role in your everyday life, and if you’re anything like me, it’s probably one of the larger stressors on your mental health. How much of our lives do we have to sacrifice doing hard labor or sitting behind computer screens in order to make enough money to stay alive to do that work all over again? When was the last time you ate food that you or your loved ones didn’t spend money on? When was the last time you wandered into a forest to breathe unpolluted air and observe the plants and bugs that call your land home? Why does modern culture demand of us that we focus all of our energy on acquiring wealth and ignore our own mental health to do so?
Modern Western society does not live “at one” or in harmony with the Earth. We no longer heavily rely on nature and the climate, but increasingly rely on money and the economy. It’s as if this planet is solely a stomping ground for a “holier than thou” species to level out and cover in concrete. The Earth has been screaming back at us for years. We’ve seen endangerment of species such as the monarch butterfly, rising sea levels, and one of the worst wildfire seasons to ever be recorded. This is consistent with deforestation, the degradation of the ozone layer, and rising global temperatures. These are all aspects of the climate that human activity has affected. In North America, the notion that humans are separate from the ecosystem, that distancing oneself from nature is “more civilized,” and that relying on the flora and fauna of one’s homeland is “primitive” or “dirty” roots all the way back to 1492.
Before European pilgrims traveled over to the North American continent, the land was inhabited by vastly diverse Indigenous tribes and nations. Some of these tribes were nomadic and lived by moving around the landscape, hunting and gathering an array of foods as they traveled. Others were mostly stationary, growing crops and raising farm animals to provide for themselves and their communities. There were many groups with many different worldviews, religions, and philosophies. The one thing that united them all was their profound reverence for the forces of nature. They saw themselves as a part of the ecosystem of the land they lived on. It was an honor to raise crops and livestock and to participate in their homeland’s well-being. They promoted biodiversity, expressed empathy and gratitude towards the animals they ate, and valued cooperation in and between their communities. They practiced herbal medicine, tending to their sick and injured with natural remedies that they had identified to have healing properties. They even had their own forms of religion/spirituality centered around connecting one’s spirit to the Earth, feeling what Mother Nature needs, and providing that for her in exchange for her providing for them. The human population on the North American continent was thriving and developing. There was peace within and between nations for the most part. All of their needs were taken care of so they could focus on negotiations rather than violence.
Property and Greed
When the Europeans arrived, the Americans taught them how to live on their continent. They taught them how to grow crops in their soil, hunt for their own food, and use every part of the animal including the hide, bones, and meat. They were more than willing to allow these settlers to join them in their symbiotic relationship with nature. To them, more people meant a more diverse and stronger community to help each other out.
One can imagine their surprise when the Europeans introduced them to greed. They introduced them to the ideas of personal property, wealth hoarding, and social status based on material goods. They saw all of this land as unclaimed and up for grabs since the Americans had no formal ownership system. They started violently enforcing this ‘property view’ of land onto the Americans. They would claim plots of land as their own and hoard all of the resources that could be obtained from it. They also were not fond of the Americans’ religion. They started threatening them with eternal damnation if they didn’t convert to Catholicism. They called them “primitive” for their symbiotic relationship with nature, and “savages” for their denial of Christianity.
Centuries later, after colonizing the East Coast, the English-speaking Europeans separated from the British monarchy and believed it was their god-given manifest destiny to own the land all the way to the West Coast. So they loaded up their swords and crossed the Appalachian mountains, slaughtering and relocating the Native people along the way. Although many Native tribes had helped Great Britain during the Revolutionary War, Great Britain was nowhere to be found when the colonizers perpetuated their genocide.
A Culture of Climate Apathy
Today, we live in a world where we mow our lawns once a month and call it environmental care. We plant uniform gardens outside our homes solely for aesthetics without caring that the ‘weeds’ we pull up are the only sources of food for certain butterfly and bumblebee species. We stomp spiders into our carpets for daring to wander onto our property. We spray poison on our foods so that humans are the only ones that can eat them, and we pack hundreds of cows into small barns with no ventilation to steal their children’s food for ourselves before slaughtering them when they stop producing. We can’t survive without constant air conditioning (partly because global temperatures have been consistently warming for over 50 years) and the air we share has record-high levels of carbon in it.
We have taken ownership of the Earth and drained it of its resources. The Earth was never meant to be claimed for oneself; it was never meant to be commodified. It was never meant to be drained of oil to fill the pockets of wealthy CEOs. The Earth was meant to be shared by all its living beings. Similarly, humans were never meant to be in solitude. We were meant to live symbiotically with each other and with nature. Greed has divided us as one humanity; it murdered the Native American tribes and robbed the Earth of its biggest supporters. And I am afraid that Mother Nature might never accept our apology.
Juneteenth has been historically celebrated by many Americans since the late 1860s, yet it is only recently that it has become mainstream. Today we focus on why that is, what Juneteenth celebrates, and how we can do a better job incorporating this holiday into our lives. Although it has been around for so long, Juneteenth was only recognized as a federal holiday on June 19th, 2021, following the summer protests of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the brutality experienced by George Floyd at the hands of the law enforcement system. June 19th, or Juneteenth as it is known widely by those who have celebrated it since its founding, is the day we commemorate the abolition of slavery in America, freeing enslaved African Americans through the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment.
History of Juneteenth, The Emancipation Proclamation, and The Thirteenth Amendment
The Civil War was one of the bloodiest wars that Americans have ever fought, and it lasted four long years. The war was between the Union, which was made up of much of the northern states above the Mason-Dixon Line, and anyone below that line seceded from the main country and swore loyalty to the Confederacy. The Mason-Dixon line, which was passed in 1861, was designed to be a compromise that allowed Southern states to continue to use slave labor in the South in their fields and farms, while the Northern states were moving to abolish slavery within their boundaries. While the North depended on their seaports and industries, the South primarily produced the cash crops like cotton, rice, and indigo, that were being shipped across the oceans and transported by railroads across the lands. There were a few border states in the middle that did not want to give up slavery in their states. Lincoln, recognizing that he needed those states in the Union to have a chance to win the Civil War, permitted them to continue to use slavery while being a part of the Union.
In an attempt to change the course of the Civil War and keep the nation from breaking into two parts, President Abraham Lincoln wanted to weaken the Confederate forces so the Union forces could be victorious. This, he assumed, could be done by targeting the Confederacy’s economy and economic infrastructure, which at that time, was primarily dependent on slave labor. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 as an executive order, freeing all the enslaved individuals in all Confederate states that did not yield to the Union troops. With the passage of this document, the South could no longer rely on unpaid labor, leaving them in financial turmoil and giving them no other option but to surrender to the Union troops. The document is largely believed to have abolished slavery entirely in America, but the reality is that this was a political move during a war by the President to ensure that the Southern economy would be devastated. This proclamation did not include the border states which were already part of the Union but were employing slavery in their states. This meant that the enslaved individuals in those border states continued to be enslaved. This proclamation also excluded those who lived in the southern states which had already surrendered to the Union, meaning that those who did not rebel against the Union were allowed to continue to use slavery as their economic system. What the Proclamation did, however, was transform the morality and cause for fighting the Civil War. The Civil War began over the question of whether slavery should exist or not, with the Vice President of the Confederacy delivering a speech declaring the sole purpose of secession to be the disagreement on slavery between the Union and the Confederacy. However, to President Lincoln, being victorious meant keeping the nation intact, and the abolition of slavery was an aftermath. Once the Proclamation was passed, many Americans were convinced that the war was being fought for the abolition of slavery in its entirety in the United States. The Proclamation even gave way for newly freed African Americans to join the Union army and help liberate their brothers and sisters in the Confederate states.
While the Union’s victory was generally a good thing for the progress of America toward equality among all people as it was first outlined in the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation was not the document to achieve this goal. Although it changed the trajectory of the Civil War, transforming the initial cause to keep the nation united, into a moral cause of abolishing slavery, it was not until the Thirteenth Amendment was passed that slavery was truly abolished in all the states of the nation. This Amendment, which had followed the proper channels of the Legislative branch, was passed right after the Civil War ended, and right before the rebellious states were admitted back into the Union. On December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was officially ratified into the Constitution of the United States. Along with the Thirteenth Amendment, the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to all formerly enslaved individuals, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted suffrage rights to African American men, altogether addressed the Civil War’s conflicts, providing a final Constitutional solution to the issue of slavery in America.
So, where does the term “Juneteenth” come from? Although the Emancipation Proclamation had passed in 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment had passed in 1864, it was not until two months after the Civil War had ended, that many of the enslaved individuals in most Southern states had been made aware of their free status. On June 19th, 1865, two thousand Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the freedom of all who were enslaved there, and the newly freed African Americans coined the term “Juneteenth” to commemorate the day they received independence and could be truly free.
The Continued Struggle for Freedom and Equality
The end of the Civil War, the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, were supposed to be the official end to slavery in America, but many scholars have pointed out that slavery only transformed into a modified system. These scholars highlight issues with the wording of the Thirteenth Amendment, which states that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The amendment abolished slavery in all instances, except as a punishment for crimes, and the Reconstruction Era, which followed the end of the Civil War, took advantage of the loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment. In the 1890s, legalized segregation became the new normal. The South had faced a lot of loss, both to its infrastructure as a result of the war, as well as its economy (primarily held up by slavery), due to the freeing of their enslaved laborers. Additionally, many white southerners also were not ready to accept the newly freed African Americans, who they did not view as equals.
The infamous Jim Crow laws were proposed as a solution to all of the White Southerners’ problems with the outcome of the war. These laws were made to criminalize as many newly freed individuals as possible, to re-enslave them in the prison systems, and force them to help rebuild the nation, as they had once done under slavery following the Revolutionary War. The Jim Crow laws criminalized such things as being unemployed, not bowing to white people while walking on the streets, drinking from a “Whites Only” water fountain, and many other harmless, everyday actions that displeased any white residents of the area. Many times, lies were told about African Americans simply to land them in prisons and put them to work. These laws were designed to be a criminalization of blackness.
This was also the time when Convict Leasing systems began, where imprisoned individuals would be leased to businesses and the state to work as laborers for whatever positions they needed to be filled. This could be working on farmlands, working with heavy machinery, or even in coal mines. Our own Sloss Furnaces, the famous Steel and Iron plant that transformed Birmingham from a small town into the large city it is today, made use of Convict Leasing as well. To read more about the history of the prison systems in America and in Birmingham, as well as details about the convict leasing programs, click here.
The exception in the Thirteenth Amendment has today led America to have the highest rate of mass incarceration in the world and has given way to the Prison Industrial Complex. America houses only about 5% of the world’s population, yet the mass incarceration rate is so large that 20% of the world’s prison population is made up of Americans alone. This is not only unjust, costly, and inefficient, it also shares its roots in the racist history of America’s founding. Many of those who end up in prison are disproportionately people of color, which speaks to the systemic racism present within our institutions. What’s worse, many of the people held in local jails have not even been charged with any crimes. They are awaiting their trial, too poor to post the high bail amounts. Still, others have lived out sentences for crimes they have never committed. This atrocious list goes on and on with injustices, yet a simple solution is to cut down on our incarceration rates. One reason why this is more than an issue of criminality can be determined by looking at the Angola Prison in Louisiana, a plantation farm that operates as a state penitentiary, with their prisoners in chains (like enslaved individuals of the past), officers on horseback (like overseers on the plantations), and the farmland that they are expected to till, harvest and package food for the rest of the community. Until white supremacy and racist ideology continue to exist in America, so too will these unjust forms of oppression, clouded by the legal cover provided to them by the justice system.
These facts are bleak but necessary for everyone to understand, so as to be conscious of the continued struggle for true equality in this country for African Americans, and others who have dealt with oppression throughout the history of this nation. Many people think that slavery died following the Civil War, or that it was “more than 200 years ago, so what can we do about it?” Yet, the reality remains that slavery never died, but only transformed into a modern, industrialized version of the same system, which now incorporates a wider umbrella of people to oppress. Juneteenth is not only a celebration of the resistance, courage, and triumphs over oppression by people of our past, but also a day to come together and address the new forms of oppression we face in society today. It is a continuation of the legacy of freedom, equality, and justice started by those before us.
Importance of Juneteenth
Juneteenth was officially recognized as a holiday in Texas, which was the first state to do so in 1979. It has recently been recognized as a federal holiday since 2021 after President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. Juneteenth is a day to celebrate the shared history of African Americans, but also the progress towards peace, freedom, equality, and justice. Fredrick Douglass, a famous orator, author, and abolitionist, in 1852, had famously asked his audience in a speech he delivered on July 4th, what Independence Day meant for those who were enslaved in America. Juneteenth is the true Independence Day for many people who recognize the hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers, who fought the Revolutionary War for “freedom” while enslaving African Americans and stealing lands from the Native Americans. Juneteenth is a time for the rejuvenation of culture among a group of people whose cultures were stolen from them, and all that they were left behind with are their shared ancestry and shared histories. This day is a day to instill a sense of community despite those hardships and losses. Juneteenth is also a time to reflect on the past, rejoice in the resilience and solidarity of those who fought for this freedom, and discuss current events and how to best approach them moving forward. Juneteenth is a day to learn from the past, live gratefully in the present, and prepare for the future.
How Is It Celebrated and Who Can Celebrate It?
There are many ways to celebrate Juneteenth. Many cities hold parades and festivals, with local black-owned businesses and food trucks as vendors for the event. These events might include prominent guest speakers and workshops on various topics each year, based on the community’s needs and wants. Others celebrate the holiday by holding potlucks, family gatherings, and backyard barbecues for a more intimate celebration with family and friends. If you want to celebrate Juneteenth but are not comfortable engaging in community activities, there are many things you can do in the comforts of your home, or with friends and family members as well to honor this day. For one, you could learn about the history of Juneteenth. If you are reading this article, then good job, you are already celebrating it!
You can educate yourself about the history of slavery, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and any other topic that you might not be too sure about as it pertains to Juneteenth and why it is important to celebrate it. You can do this by going to a museum near you, like the Legacy Museum in Huntsville, which is a great historical walkthrough from the times of slavery to mass incarceration today, or the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which focuses on a detailed history of the Civil Rights movement that took place in the heart of Birmingham. You can watch a documentary about these topics, including “The 13th” on Netflix, which takes a deep dive into the loophole of the Thirteenth Amendment that gave rise to the mass incarceration crisis we face today. You can listen to a podcast, like “Deliberate Indifference“, a podcast by Mary Scott Hodgins that focuses on the local Birmingham history of policing and provides details about convict leasing practices in Alabama. You could read literature written by Black authors, whether they be informational, like “Medical Apartheid” by Harriet A. Washington, or fictional like the short story, “Recitatif” by Tony Morrison. You could support Black-owned businesses, locally or online, such as buying your books from a Black-owned bookstore or going out to eat at a Black-owned restaurant. You could educate others about the importance of Juneteenth, including your friends, family members, and even co-workers. As an ally, you can maybe pick up a shift for your Black friend who may want to celebrate Juneteenth with their family, or if you are someone in a supervisory position, you could give a Black co-worker the day off to celebrate Juneteenth. Encourage and empower your Black friends, family members, or co-workers, to feel comfortable to share their opinions and voice their concerns. You could even volunteer at any local Juneteenth event to help make the events successful!
Local Juneteenth Celebrations to Attend
There are many local events that you can attend to celebrate Juneteenth in Birmingham, Alabama. Here are a few that might be of interest:
Juneteenth: The Cookout, hosted by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on June 17, from 10 am-4 pm. There will be food trucks, live entertainment, a children’s village, tournaments, food competitions, genealogy workshops, and even a free tour of the museum!
Juneteenth Social is hosted by the UAB Black Alumni network at the Southern Kitchen Roof Top Bar on June 17th from 7 pm to 11 pm. Tickets are $25 each, and the proceeds go to the Kappa Delta Omega Psi Phi memorial scholarship for incoming African American Male students.
Second Annual Juneteenth Freedom Celebration, hosted by The Lifting As We Climb Foundation on June 18th, from 2 pm-9 pm at the Arlington Historic House in Birmingham. There will be food, fun, education, entertainment, and fireworks, and the tickets start at $20 for early bird tickets and $25 for general admissions. Bring small tents and lawn chairs, and be ready to eat from the food trucks on site.
Juneteenth in the Magic City 2023, hosted by Simone’s Kitchen ATL, on June 18, from 4 pm-10 pm at the Club M Compound. There will be food trucks, vendors, live bands, fireworks, African dances, and various other entertainment. Tickets start at $15 for Early Bird tickets and $20 for general admissions.
Juneteenth Pop Up Art Exhibit, hosted by Studio 2500 on June 16, at 6 pm for all the artistic, creative folks. Admissions start at $10 per person, children under 13 are free, and tickets can be purchased online at their website. They will have food, music, and an open mic, so bring lawn chairs and your own beverages, and take in the creations of our fellow Birmingham local artists and performers.
Juneteenth Open Mic is a virtual event being held on June 19th to highlight musicians, poets, hip-hop artists, and other Black artists who would like to participate. If you are a local artist and you would like to increase your followers, this is the event for you. If you just want to show up virtually to support local artists, you can do that to buy going to their website and purchasing tickets to vote. Tickets start at $10, whether you are performing, a part of the audience, or even a vendor. Again, this is a virtual event, so all you need is your laptop and internet!
However you choose to spend the day, make sure to be conscious of what Juneteenth represents to you and to those around you, and together we can actively, and intentionally work to make our world a better place for future generations!
Naturally, many human rights violations and atrocities leave one wondering, “What can I do to ensure these violations do not happen again?” Unfortunately, however, many don’t know how to help to support human rights and a lot of information online is convoluted. This in turn causes charities and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which seek to promote humanitarian efforts, to often get overshadowed by bad news.
In this blog, I will share notable charities and initiatives that one could support in an effort to make a difference in the world.
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch (HRW) is an organization that investigates and reports on human rights violations and atrocities throughout the world. The advocacy of Human Rights Watch, as said by them, is directed towards “governments, armed groups and businesses, pushing them to change or enforce their laws, policies and practices.”
Moreover, Human Rights Watch does not accept any sort of funding from the government or corporations, as they seek to remain unbiased and bipartisan. The organization is complied of over 400 lawyers and human rights experts, and they would be a great organization to help out with donations.
Human Rights Watch prides itself on its transparency in its affairs, and it was thus awarded the Guidestar Platinum Seal of Transparency, an award given by an organization that “gathers, organizes, and distributes information about U.S nonprofits in an effort to advance transparency, enable users to make better decisions, and encourage charitable giving.”
Moreover, if that was not enough to show you the commitment of Human Rights Watch, allow us to make note that in 1997, they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping create the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty — a piece of legislation that brought about newfound protection to citizens from bombs which previously “killed and maimed indiscriminately.”
Therefore, with all of the aforementioned facts in mind, donating to Human Rights Watch would be a sure way in bringing about change and ensuring that human rights violations get exposed, lessened, and stopped.
Amnesty International is one of the most influential and famous nongovernmental organizations in the world. Amnesty International, simply put, could be defined by its mission statement: “[we are] a global movement of more than 10 million people who take injustice personally. We are campaigning for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all.” Amnesty International, like Human Rights Watch, is primarily funded by its supporters – not governments or political institutions.
Moreover, Amnesty International is both unbiased and bipartisan – they simply just seek to ensure all people enjoy human rights. Amnesty International functions by lobbying governments to ensure they keep their promises and passions for human rights; investigate and expose all violations that occur in the world, despite of where or what might have happened; and seek to educate and mobilize all people who wish to learn more about human rights.
Amnesty International was founded more than 50 years ago when the owner, Peter Benenson, saw two Portuguese students jailed for raising a toast to freedom in 1961. Since then, Amnesty International has been one of the most prominent and respected NGOs on the scene, and they have accomplished a lot.
In just 2022 alone, Amnesty International has helped free individuals who were imprisoned unjustly and ensured that human rights abusers got locked up. Moreover, Amnesty International was a driving force behind the decriminalization of Abortion in Colombia. Needless to say, Amnesty International’s impact, passion, and dedication to human rights is incredibly influential, and donating to their cause would definitely help bring about good changes.
Human Rights First
Human Rights First (HRF) was established in 1978, with the mission of “[ensuring] that the United States is a global leader on human rights.” Human Rights First is centered in the United States, but it conducts a multitude of work abroad to ensure that “human wrongs are righted.”
Human Rights First has been involved in a lot of international political affairs which sought to eradicate injustice and, as they put it, human wrongs. For instance, in 1988, Human Rights First initiated its Lawyer-to-Lawyer network, which was an initiative that helped ensure all lawyers that have been imprisoned unjustly internationally are released. As of now, the program has worked with over 8000 lawyers in over 130 countries.
In addition to helping create the International Criminal Court, Human Rights First also helped establish the Fair Labor Association in 1999. This Association brought together over 60 major companies, such as Nike and Adidas, to help set workplace standards for industries throughout the world. In doing so, Human Rights First helped ensure that those who work for major international companies are not going to face hardships or disparity in their workplace environment.
Human Rights First, in addition to all that has been mentioned, has been a major actor in the anti-torture movement. In 2009, Human Rights First stood beside President Obama when he signed the executive order banning all torture in the United States. Then, in 2015, Human Rights First sought to make Obama’s order even more powerful and impactful. After the release of the Torture Report, Human Rights First was able to gain public support and then work with Senators McCain and Feinstein to craft what they consider to be the “strongest anti-torture law in U.S. history.”
Needless to say, Human Rights First is an incredibly dedicated, driven, and successful organization, which has had years of successful changes in the world of human rights. You definitely would not go wrong by donating or supporting them.
In summary, human rights is a very complicated topic that is often convoluted and hard to understand through the media. Due to this, many do not always know what is the best way to donate and help out, despite wanting to. In this blog, I have listed multiple different organizations that have a proven history of success and change, and I thus hope to have made the process of getting involved in human rights easier.
If more people are involved in human rights, more change will happen, and more people internationally will have access to these same rights. It is my hope that, one day, human rights will be as accessible to everyone on this planet as oxygen is. This will only happen with support, and that is exactly what I hope to have urged you to do in this blog — support the NGOs which fight for human rights.
This blog is part three of the conversation around disability rights, especially as it applies to children within the American school system. If you have not read the first two blogs in this series, I suggest you do so. The first blog focused on the historical view of disability and the American school system’s approach to children with disabilities. The second part mainly focused on the struggles that children with disabilities face within the school system, and how these struggles have been exacerbated due to the recent pandemic. This final part will focus on some of the approaches that have been taken in the past to address people with disabilities, and how they differ from a human rights approach. We will also examine how we can help on various levels, whether we want to focus on our personal abilities or advocate for a larger movement.
The Rights of Children with Disabilities
What rights are protected?
Much of what we have established in modern society in terms of children’s rights comes from decades of struggles, from implementing child labor laws to fighting for the right to an education. Similarly, the fight to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was one sure way to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination. These rights and more are protected under the United Nations, both in terms of people with disabilities, (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD), and with children’s rights (Convention on the Rights of the Child, CRC). Yet, these developments have only occurred in recent years; the ADA and the CRC were passed in America and the UN respectively, in 1990, and the CRPD was not adopted internationally until 2006.
The ADA, passed in the United States, protected the rights of people with disabilities from being discriminated against in all aspects of society. This was the first major legislation that protected people with disabilities from being denied employment, discriminated against in places of business, or even denied housing. In addition to these protections, the ADA required industries to be inclusive of those with disabilities through (among other things) taking measures such as building ramps and elevators for easy access to upper-level floors and building housing units with people with disabilities in mind. While America had passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA (originally passed in 1975, and renamed in 1990) by this time, the initial form of this legislation allowed schools to place certain students with disabilities in special programs for no more than 45 days at a time. It was not until its improved form was passed in 2004 that provided the necessary financial and social infrastructure for its successful implementation.
The passage of the CRC, which applies to all individuals under the age of 18, focuses on non-discrimination, the right to life, survival and development, the State’s responsibility to ensure that the child’s best interests are being pursued, including ensuring that the child has adequate parental guidance. Additionally, it focuses on the child’s right to free expression, free thought, freedom to preserve their identity, protection from being abused or neglected, adequate healthcare and education, and includes certain protections the State is required to offer the children, including protection from trafficking, child labor, and torture. Article 23 of this Convention specifically focuses on the rights of children with disabilities, adding that these children have the right to the care, education, and training they need to lead a life of fulfillment and dignity. It also stresses the responsibility of the State to ensure that children with disabilities can live a life of independence and protect them from being socially isolated. Even though the UN passed this Convention in 2004, America is the only nation that has yet to ratify this treaty. This is why certain realities continue to exist, such as what is happening in Illinois.
Finally, we have the CRPD, which entered into force in 2008, only 15 years ago. Influenced by the ADA, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was passed to ensure that people with disabilities were fully protected under the law, including from discrimination, with the ability to function as fully pontificating citizens of their societies, with equal opportunities and the right to accessibility in order for them to lead a life with the dignity and respect afforded to their able-bodied counterparts. This convention had massive support and draws from both a human rights focus and an international development focus. What makes this convention unique is the implementation and monitoring abilities embedded within the treaty itself, and it includes non-traditional actors from communities (usually those with disabilities) with specific roles in charge of monitoring the implementation of this treaty. Unfortunately, the United States, while Obama signed the treaty and passed it to the Senate for their approval in 2009, has yet to fully ratify the CRPD treaty as well.
Some Approaches to Disability Rights
Upon understanding the various nuances of this conversation, we can now explore the three different approaches to defining disability in society. These approaches examine the issues that people with disabilities face and provide models influenced by differing fields of expertise. Many within society view disability as a medical issue and their solutions to the struggles faced by people with disabilities are medically focused. Similarly, others believe that disability is an issue of how society is structured, and their proposals for solving these issues lie within the realms of reshaping society to be more accessible to people with disabilities. Still, another approach built upon the foundations of human rights, focuses on the individual first, and the disability as an extension of their individuality. We will explore these three approaches and their pros and cons.
Approach 1: Medical Model of Disability
As mentioned above, some people view disability as a medical issue, and this approach can be categorized as the medical model of disability. This means that they believe that the “problem” of disability belongs to the individual experiencing it and that disability comes from the direct impairment of the person. The focus of this approach is to look for medical “cures” for disability, which can only be provided by medical “experts” based on the specific diagnosis. While it may be true that individuals with disabilities require medical help from time to time, their entire existence does not revolve around this notion of viewing disability as an illness. The focus here is to “fix” the person with disabilities, so they can become “normal” again. This approach also makes use of the “special needs” rhetoric, which can result in the isolation and marginalization of people with disabilities. Media plays a big part in portraying people with disabilities as weak or ashamed of their disability, which can invoke fear or pity for people with disabilities within the larger society.
Approach 2: Social Model of Disability
Another approach that has been proposed is what is known as the Social Model of Disability. In this approach, the “problem” of disability is seen as a result of the physical and social barriers within society that exclude people with disabilities from fully participating in their society. Disability is seen as a political and social issue, and the goal of this model is to be more inclusive and recognize the prevalence of disability within our societies. This means looking closely at the ableist social institutions and infrastructures present within society and attempting to address these manmade challenges posed by people with disabilities. This model recognizes the social stigma around disabilities and recognizes people with disabilities as differently abled rather than viewing them as incapable of living an independent lifestyle. This approach places individuals with disabilities on a spectrum rather than the two categories of disabled and able-bodied. The goal of this approach is to be socially inclusive of all individuals, regardless of their disabilities.
Approach 3: The Human Rights Model of Disability
Finally, there is the Human Rights Model of Disability, which builds upon the foundations laid out by the Social Model of Disability and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In this approach, the focus is on viewing the individual with a disability as a human first, recognizing that disability is a natural part of humanity that has existed as long as humans have been around. While it shares a lot of similarities with the social model, the human rights approach emphasizes not only the right of every individual to be treated equally before the law but also stresses that a person’s impairment should not be used as an excuse for denying them rights. This is essentially what the CRPD centers around, and the main goal of this approach is to ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities and protect their right to fully participate in society, politically, civilly, socially, culturally, and economically.
How Can We Help?
On the Internation Level
While the United Nations has a convention that focuses on protecting children’s rights, it is highly debated whether these treaties are being enforced around the world. Child labor is still common in various places around the world, including right here in Alabama. While it can be argued that the US has not ratified the treaty and that is why the UN cannot do anything about this issue, there are other places that have ratified the treaty that still places children in dangerous working conditions and face no real repercussions from these decisions from the UN. In 2019, many tech companies were sued for their use of child labor in other countries to mine the precious minerals they require to produce their devices. Many textile companies within the fashion industry use child labor in nations that have ratified the children’s rights treaty. While the United Nations is trying its best to protect and promote the rights of vulnerable communities, it has not been able to enforce these treaties and regulations, and as a result, atrocities against those vulnerable communities, (including children), continue to occur. How can we as human beings, ensure that all children are protected from harm, not just those able-bodied, living in wealthier nations? This is something that needs to be addressed, and it requires the cooperation of many different nations willing to put their differences aside and work together to find a solution.
On the Domestic Level
As we explored in the human rights model of disability rights, it is the responsibility of society to provide equal access to all its citizens. This includes its citizens who have disabilities, and not doing so would discriminate against those who have disabilities and violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. This means that both on a national and local level, our infrastructure needs to be updated with an inclusive mindset that makes the roads safer and more accessible to all the citizens using them. As a state, Alabama could not only fix the infrastructure, but also pass bills to ensure that people with disabilities receive the care they need, including employment opportunities, medical assistance, food assistance, and any financial help they may require. Furthermore, on a national level, the police (or another department focused on social work) can be better trained to recognize the various disabilities, both visible and invisible, so people with disabilities are not wrongfully imprisoned for “behavioral” issues. This training would help erode the school-to-prison pipeline that has replaced disciplinary standards in American schools and make way for a brighter future for children with disabilities. Finally, the United States can, at the bare minimum, ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed into existence in 1990 by member states of the United Nation. As we mentioned earlier, the United States is the only nation in the world that has yet to ratify this treaty.
On the Individual Level
We can all be more mindful of our actions and our ableist mindsets. Next time you walk down the street, pay attention to the roads and sidewalks. Are there any sidewalks for people with disabilities to use safely? Are there curb cuts, and are those curb cuts freely accessible or are they blocked? How accessible are public buildings such as restaurants, storefronts, or even the DMV? Are there enough parking spots allotted to people with disabilities, and are those spots easily accessible, or blocked off by other vehicles? Thinking outside of an ableist mind frame is the first step toward being more inclusive of people with disabilities. It might seem like a powerless and pointless step to take, but the more you start to notice the ableist structures within society, the more you will want to speak up about these issues the next time you have the opportunity. You will also be more mindful of your own ableist actions and how they may have unintended consequences. If you are a parent, you have the ability to question your school’s practices concerning children with disabilities and offer support to the children and their parents. As an individual, you can also contact your representatives to pass legislation that would empower people with disabilities to live independently. As a society, we need to get past the stigmatization of this group and normalize disability being an innate part of being human.
The first line of the first amendment in the Constitution of the United States, also known as the Establishment clause, asserts that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This clause, although seemingly simple in nature, has been the root of many judicial battles throughout the United States’ history. Religion, as a human right, has always been a topic of political debate.
One might inquire as to why this is the case: what makes the freedom of religion such a sensitive topic? In this blog, I seek to answer this question by outlining fundamental cases which have shaped how our legislators interpret our right to religion. Moreover, this blog shall conclude with how our fundamental right to religion is being interpreted today, as well as what is potentially in store for religious interpretation in the future.
Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) | Introduction of the Lemon Test
Our journey begins in 1971, with the landmark Supreme Court Case of Lemon v. Kurtzman which involved the states of Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. The issue materialized when both of the aforementioned states decided to introduce legislation that would use taxpayer money to fund church-affiliated schools. In doing so, the government funds would pay for teacher salaries, textbook costs, and many other educational materials. Funding church-affiliated schools could be construed as a violation of the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court followed this logic, and with an 8-1 ruling, they decided to strike down the legislation passed by Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, no longer allowing state funds to go to church-affiliated schools.
What is particularly remarkable about this case is that it formally introduced the so-called Lemon Test, a judicial test constructed to see if legislation defies the Establishment Clause. The Lemon Test has three ways to test and see if a piece of legislation defies the clause:
The piece of legislation must have a secular purpose;
The piece of legislation must not advance or prohibit the practice of religion;
The piece of legislation must not force the government into “excessive entanglement” with religious affairs.
If a piece of legislation passes the Lemon Test, then it does not defy the Establishment Clause and can proceed to further scrutiny. That is, the legislation will be evaluated to see if aligns with the other amendments. With these three prongs noted, one can see how easily Lemon v. Kurtzman would have failed the Lemon Test.
Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) | Application of the Lemon Test
Wallace v. Jaffree, a case that took place in the state of Alabama, is another landmark Supreme Court case involving a dispute in legislation around religion. In 1981, Alabama decided to introduce legislation that mandated a 1-minute moment of silence at the start of class in all public schools. Although, ostensibly, the legislators claimed that this moment of silence could be used either for reflection or prayers, the legislation’s intent was to create an opportunity for students to pray before school started.
This decision naturally upset many non-religious parents, and multiple lawsuits soon followed, climbing their way up all the way to the Supreme Court. Throughout this process, the Alabama legislators argued that this bill does not defy the Establishment Clause, as the moment of silence can be used in any way that pleases the student— not necessarily just for prayer. However, the fault in this is that the introduction of the bill was done to allow students to pray, not to give them a moment of silence; thus, this bill failed the Lemon Test’s first prong as it did not have a secular purpose. In a vote of 6-3, the Supreme Court held that the bill defies the Establishment Clause.
Oregon v. Smith (1990) | Introduction of RFRA
This case, unlike the aforementioned ones, has a bit more nuance to it and led to a wide range of implications. This case is the primary reason Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, which is one of the most bipartisan pieces of legislation, having passed the House unanimously and the Senate 97-3.
In Oregon v. Smith, two people, who both worked at a drug rehabilitation center, were fired due to having consumed peyote, a hallucinogenic drug. The issue at hand, however, is that their consumption of peyote was done during a sacred religious practice. This case did not make it to the Supreme Court because the drug rehabilitation center fired them (as the center very much can fire whoever they please — they are a private entity); it made it to the Supreme Court because after they were fired, these two individuals sought unemployment benefits and were denied due to being fired for consuming drugs, which is considered “workplace misconduct.”
However, unlike the previous cases, the Supreme Court did not rule in favor of the appellants. The Court, by a 6-3 vote, ruled that since the denial of unemployment benefits due to workplace misconduct is a rule of general application (meaning it does not specifically target any people or religious practice), it is constitutional.
However, as one might conclude, many did not like this outcome. Therefore, as aforementioned, Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to clarify some of the issues raised by Oregon v. Smith. The first clause of RFRA states its purpose, saying that it aims to prohibit “any agency, department, or official of the United States or any State (the government) from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”
This first clause seeks to prohibit exactly what was the outcome in Oregon v. Smith, but it also comes with some limitations. That is, Congress is free to burden one’s exercise of religion if (1) doing so will further a compelling government interest; and, (2) doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest. The introduction of this incredibly bipartisan bill, as we will shortly explore, has some interesting implications.
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) | Application of RFRA
In the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, we see the RFRA being put to use which leads to an interesting implication from the outcome of this case. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby sprouted from one of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), namely, that all nonexempt employers are legally required to offer their employees health coverage and benefits, including contraceptives, some of which stop an egg from fertilizing. Before progressing with the case, we ought to make note that some employers, primarily religious institutions such as churches, are exempt from the ACA.
Hobby Lobby, a crafts company, is a tightly-owned company, meaning that there are only a few number of people who own the company. All of these owners, moreover, do not want to comply with the ACA since they believe life begins at conception and to thereby provide their employees with free contraceptives would go against their religious beliefs. However, if a company does not comply with the ACA, it would have to pay a fee per employee. For Hobby Lobby, the total cost would amount to about $475 million per year.
Hobby Lobby was conflicted about whether they should go against their religious beliefs and supply their employees with contraceptives or instead pay $475 million a year and adhere to their religious stance. Due to this ethical dilemma, Hobby Lobby decided to sue the Department of Human Health Services (those who implemented the ADA), and the case made its way up to the Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby cited RFRA, stating that the ACA mandate does not comply with RFRA’s second clause. They argued that forcing Hobby Lobby to offer its employees contraceptives is not the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government decision. Rather, Hobby Lobby stated that they, like religious institutions, should be exempt from the ACA, as that is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest (health care for employees). The employees of companies who are exempt from the ACA have their health care paid for by taxes.
The Supreme Court agreed with Hobby Lobby. By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby is correct—the least restrictive means indeed is making Hobby Lobby an exempt company, thereby allowing governmental taxes to pay for the health care of their employees.
What is remarkable about this case is its implication that the Supreme Court stated that the best course of action to resolve a religious dispute over health care is to simply allow the government to fund health care. One might argue, then, that the Supreme Court is hinting toward universal health care, as they view that as the least restrictive means.
Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022) | Abandonment of the Lemon Test
The last case we shall discuss is one that has been all over the media recently:Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. In this case, a high school football coach decided to kneel and pray before and after games. The school district feared that his actions would violate the Establishment Clause, so they asked him to stop. When he did not, they fired him.
Claiming his first amendment right to the freedom of religion was violated, he sued the school. The lawsuit eventually made its way up to the Supreme Court, and, by a 6-3 vote, the Court ruled in the coach’s favor, stating that he was not complicit in praying since he did it during post-game periods when people were free to do as they pleased.
However, something remarkable also happened in this case: the Supreme Court decided to stop using the Lemon Test, which has been in practice since 1971. Instead of the Lemon Test, the Court stated that they will decide disputes over the Establishment Clause by “accor[ding] with [what] histor[ically] and faithfully reflec[ts] the understanding of the Founding Fathers.”
What this means, we do not yet know, as this is yet another new change by the Supreme Court. Throughout history, the Lemon Test has proved itself to be a great way of settling legislative disputes, so one could only wonder why the Supreme Court decided against it.
As I showed with this blog post, cases revolving around religious freedom are by no means simple, but the courts, thankfully, have historically always ruled in favor of the Establishment Clause, never seeking to subdue religious freedom.
However, after the abandonment of the Lemon Test in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, it is clear that the Supreme Court is planning on interpreting the Establishment Clause differently than they have had since 1971. What this means for upcoming cases, we have yet to find out. However, what we do know is that religious freedom, despite how tricky it might be at times, should remain a human right.
After decades of systemic and societal discrimination, an array of hope burst through the clouds of despair for transgender individuals. Recently, greater acceptance of transgender individuals in modern culture has opened doors to accessible and evidence-based transgender healthcare. Budding healthcare infrastructure has helped transgender individuals transition and care for their changing bodies providing relief for the marginalized community. Healthcare professionals and teams of scientists worked for decades through societal judgement and the subsequent roadblocks to ensure that the transgender community had an improved chance at a healthy life as non-transgender individuals. However, increasing vitriol exacerbated by politicians has tightened restrictions for gender affirming healthcare across the United States.
In February 2022, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton released a directive stating that gender transition therapies including hormone therapies, puberty blockers, or surgery given to minors can be investigated as child abuse and given criminal penalties. Officials, teachers, parents, nurses, and anyone involved in direct contact with children were required to report suspicions of such therapies, framing the act more as concern for children’s safety and innocence. Anyone found supporting or prescribing such treatment, including parents or healthcare providers, would be subject to child abuse investigations by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The agency was instructed to prioritize cases in which parents who provide their transgender children with gender-affirming care above all other child abuse cases. Strangely, the caseworkers were told to investigate regardless of whether the standard of sufficient evidence was met and to not record their investigation in writing.
Days after the directive was announced, the Texas Department of Protective and Family Services launched an investigation into a federal employee, a mother of a transgender daughter, after she inquired when the directive would be made effective. A federal judge blocked the investigation only 2 days later. In the immediate weeks following the directive‘s release, at least nine families were already facing child abuse investigations for supporting their transgender children in obtaining gender-affirming care. This past spring, the clouds in an otherwise tranquil sky began to blot out blossoming hope as intimidated healthcare providers canceled hormone prescriptions and the few existing transgender youth treatment facilities closed. Families clamored to find alternative sources of hormones and puberty blockers for their children. Some became afraid to claim the transgender label, many moved out of the state, and hundreds more were at home, fighting for their right to exist as their gender identity and as themselves.
In a statement to the Texas Tribune, U.S. Surgeon General stated that this directive interferes with the physician-patient relationship which has no place for religion, beliefs, or politics. Abbott’s directive and Paxton’s following opinion sparked intense backlash from the medical community for blatantly ignoring decades worth of research supporting early transitional care.
When children first learn that they are transgender, they face a physical and mental health disorder known as gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is a condition where individuals experience severe dissonance between the gender they identify as and the physical manifestations of their biological gender. Depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts often follow this sense of “not self” that plagues many adolescents as they begin to come out to the world with their new name and pronouns. To significantly improve the outcomes of transgender individuals, all major medical organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, and American Psychiatric Association support gender transition as an effective therapy. Transitioning includes gender-affirming hormonal therapy and puberty blockers. Hormonal therapy begins and allows for a smoother transition into the opposite gender while puberty blockers suppress the body’s natural maturation process to increase the amount of time children and their bodies have to transition into a new gender. In the meantime, individuals receive mental health support and preparation for a successful transition and in unfortunate cases, wait for legislation to increase access to gender affirming treatments.
The most prevalent medical reason for opposing gender transition is the possibility that a transgender individual will have regrets, because what is done cannot be undone easily. Although it is a valid concern, puberty blockers exist for children and individuals who are uncertain about their gender, because they provide ample time for the individual to choose not to change genders, if that is later realized. In addition, regrets are “extremely rare” and can be attributed to adverse social climates more than personal attitude. Proper mental health support and preparation are also important for a successful gender transition to recognize behavioral changes and tackle the paradoxical shared sentiment that transgender people are no longer welcome in conservative society.
Alabama and Florida Response
Governor Abbott’s attempt to restore conservative values in Texas is not a new phenomenon. Texas has seen several bills criminalizing medical care for transgender children which is reflective of a broader trend across the United States. In the past year alone, 21 states drafted bills to deny transgender medical care. Arkansas passed a bill making it illegal to prescribe puberty blockers and for insurance companies to cover transgender care. Other conservative states, such as Alabama, have taken Abbott’s directive as a green light and are preparing legislation to discourage transgender healthcare and marginalize the LGBTQ+ within their borders. Taking a slightly different approach, Governor DeSantis of Florida introduced what is commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill (House Bill 1557). Also known as the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, the bill was signed into law and passed by the Florida Senate in March 2022. This bill would effectively prevent gender identity and sexual orientation education in classroom discussion in Florida. Experts worry that the vague descriptions in the law indicate that it be used it to suppress all actions that remotely fall under the literal definition of sex and gender, leading to a dangerous slippery slope that may open a dark path of minority discrimination.
On April 8th 2022, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law two bills preventing medical professionals from providing gender-affirming care and forcing individuals to use the restroom of their biological gender. In an unprecedented move, the Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act makes arranging gender-affirming treatment including puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgery for children under 19 a felony with a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison if convicted. The second bill is culturally similar to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill. This bill prohibits teaching or using words related to “sex” and “gender.”
A lawsuit filed by families of transgender children weeks after Abbot’s directive was announced resulted in an injunction from federal courts. Abbott vs Doe reached the Supreme Court in May 2022 during which the court ruled that Abbott had no authority to control child welfare officers and direct them to investigate providing transgender healthcare. The country released a sigh of relief, but the fight is not over. Stopping Abbot’s directive seems more akin to a pause on the right’s crusade against the transgender community than a stop.
Recent reports from The Washington Post also suggest that Attorney General Paxton attempted to collect gender marker changes and other transgender identifying information on driver’s licenses from the Texas Department of Public Safety in early 2022. Human Rights Campaign reports that Paxton’s office requested the names and license plates of these individuals later in the inquiry, as well. This news comes as a new shackle for transgender Texans. Some have changed back their gender identity on their licenses to the way it was prior. If not, police or other government officials would know of their transgender identity with the search of their name during traffic stops or unrelated incidents which could lead to dangerous discrimination.
To support the fight for transgender safety in Texas, support politicians and lawmakers who oppose legislation limiting transgender healthcare. Advocate for the reopening of the University of Texas’s youth transgender clinic, the only one of its kind in the southwestern United States, that closed last November. People in Texas and across borders can also donate Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which are organizations working to keep the injunction in place on Governor Abbott’s directive after AG Paxton filed an appeal against the federal court decision. They, in conjunction with the Transgender Education Network of Texas and Equality Texas have also assembled the LGBTQIA+ Student Rights Toolkit which is a set of explanations and guidelines to understand Texas’s current plight as well as additional resources such as TX Trans Kids.
Typically, when you hear “human rights” in a sentence, it is either preceded or followed by words with negative connotations — crises, violations, atrocities, etc. However, this blog will aim to highlight positives and focus on the environment.
After reading many articles about environmental issues, some people might be unaware that we have made environmental progress throughout the year. As the Earth is home to all humans, any sort of environmental success, no matter how small, benefits the human species as a whole.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable environmental victories was the recovery of the Ozone layer. The Ozone layer is located in Earth’s atmosphere and is responsible for blocking excess ultraviolet light from reaching life on Earth. Without the Ozone, the ultraviolet radiation would harm all life on earth, including plants.
In 1985, scientists discovered what seemed to be a hole forming in the Ozone. If the formation of this hole had not been stopped, the Ozone could have depleted significantly enough to allow ultraviolet radiation to penetrate Earth’s atmosphere and reach life on Earth.
While chlorofluorocarbons pose a menacing threat to the environment, thankfully in 1987, almost 200 nations signed the Montreal Protocol, which prohibited the use and production of items containing chlorofluorocarbons.
This act of international cooperation proved to be beneficial, as the Ozone recovered significantly in the coming years. In fact, the United Nations (UN) predicts that by 2035, the Ozone will be fully replenished in the Arctic and Northern Hemisphere.
This is why swift actions of nations are vital to correct threats to the environment. This collaborative effort by the nations to join forces to solve this issue with the Ozone makes it one of the most remarkable environmental successes of all times?
The Rise of Environmentally-Friendly Fuel
Another environmental success was one that originated in the United States in the 1970s. The United States (US) decided to federally ban the use of a certain type of lead in gasoline which had potent toxins encoded within it.
After the US ban, Canada and some European nations followed suit. Again, due to this combined effort, lead levels dropped from the air, which resulted in a decrease in respiratory diseases invoked by lead..Additionally, evidence of lead levels decreased in human blood, allowing gasoline users (which was anyone who drove a car or made contact with gasoline) to live healthier lives.
Needless to say, the international effort to stop using lead gasoline was a great environmental success for lead gasoline, according to what the World Health Organizations once deemed was “the mistake of the 20th century.”
While gas that does not contain toxic lead surely is a success; not using gas at all is even a greater success. Gas and fossil fuels will inherently create pollution, which will eventually harm the environment, regardless of how eco-friendly the gas/fossil fuel happens to be.
However, recently, there has been more of a push than ever for renewable energy rather than rely on fossil fuels for energy. Many nations have started utilizing solar and wind power, both which do not harm the environment.
This push for renewable energy has allowed it to become more accessible and the prices low. In fact, since 2010, the cost of installing solar power has decreased by 85% and the cost of wind power has fallen by 50% so renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels. This is a major accomplishment for all of humankind. We have reached a point where fossil fuels, which are harmful to the environment,are rarely used in comparison to renewable energy. Years ago, many would have viewed this change as an impossible feat. However, an impossible feat it is not, it is another environmental victory.
The Bottom Line
While this blog only lists a couple environmental successes, they are by no means the only ones. Throughout the years, there have been hundreds of success stories that have helped keep our environment healthy and prosperous.
However, even with these successes in mind, environmental problems are still incredibly prevalent. Global warming, despite all of the successes mentioned, still prevails.
These environmental problems are dire, and they need to be solved as soon as possible. Thankfully, as we have seen happen throughout the years, environmental problems can be solved.
It is for those reasons that it is important to make note of environmental successes. It is not simply just for peace of mind—it is so that we are all well aware that we have been able to solve problems in the past, so this should inspire us to continue tosolve problems in the future.
As our Earth grows older, it is plausible that it might face more dangers and we are capable of overcoming environmental threats. While the Earth indeed grows older, so do we. As our technology advances, we should be confident that we are equipped to handle the environmental challenges that come our way.
Note from the author: This blog was written to accompany the social justice cafe on Wednesday, November 30th at 4:00 pm on zoom. To join, sign up here. Alongside this event, this post focuses on an international scale while the recent post by Maya Crocker focuses on transitional justice in the United States.
Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end, it is worthwhile, because, in the end, only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
What is transitional justice?
Transitional justice (TJ) refers to a set of judicial and non-judicial processes addressing previous injustices of authoritarian regimes (or multiple perpetrator groups) and establishing rule of law. Transitional justice has several aims and synthesizes aspects of punitive and restorative justice.
According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), these aims include:
Providing recognition to victims
Building trust between citizens and state institutions
Reinforcing the rule of law
Committing to human rights and building solidarity with victims
Reconciliation between victims, perpetrators, and bystanders
Preventing new violations
But only characterizing transitional justice through its aims would not highlight the transformative effect this approach attempts in states where massive or systematic violations have occurred. While providing redress to victims and undertaking prosecutorial avenues as practical solutions, this approach also takes a strategic initiative to change the political systems, conflicts, and conditions that contributed to violations occurring in the first place.
This field first emerged in the 1980s and early 90s in response to the drastic political changes in Latin America and East Europe. Human rights advocates and citizens alike questioned how and what kind of redress should occur in the wake of widespread and systematic violence. Fears over disrupting political changes by pursuing indictments of former leaders were salient: how could justice exist without compromising democratization?
Thus, “transitions to democracy” and “justice” intersected and involved multiple processes to be sensitive to these concerns during a critical period in the country.
Truth Commissions: ad hoc commissions of inquiry established in, and authorized by, states for the primary purposes of investigating and reporting on key periods of recent past abuse.
Amnesty: a pardon granted to perpetrators, usually granted to those who comply with truth commissions and offer testimonies
Purges, lustrations, and security reforms: (1) removal of known collaborators of oppression from office and state institutions, (2) process of vetting personnel in state institutions, (3) transformation in state institutions involved in repression, like the military, police, judiciary
Reparations: state-sponsored initiatives that aim at repairing, on a massive scale, the consequences of past abuse experienced by certain classes of victims, including material and symbolic benefits
Gender Justice: focusing on the intersections of human rights abuse and gender during a period of repression, fact-finding initiatives to establish the nature of gendered abuses
Memorialization: museums, memorials, and other means of preserving the public memory of victims and raising moral consciousness about past abuse
Ultimately, TJ is a context-specific process that crucially (and historically) is led by the nation where the violations happened.
Specific attempts at transitional justice: the good and bad
Days after the restoration to democracy in 1982, the government created the National Commission of Inquiry into Disappearances. No reports or prosecutions were produced. In 1986, prosecutions began against the former military leader, General García Meza, and some of his officers. The trial was not complete until 1993, by which point Meza had gone into hiding to avoid a 30-year sentence for torture and murder. Notably, this court case rejected pardons for those convicted of crimes against humanity.
After a 12-year military rule in 1985, the new government avoided truth commissions. Instead, President Sanguinetti issued a pardon (1986) to all soldiers and officers of the previous regime, with no distinction as to those who followed orders and those who gave them. He claimed this was the ‘safest path’ but ‘not a moral decision,’ highlighting that TJ attempts are not pursued in every situation. This is often a result of corruption and officials often rely on a dialogue of ‘national reconciliation by granting large amnesties but failing to pursue any other TJ processes, essentially dismissing victims’ realities. Victims were denied any form of reparation and violators remain in high office in the police and military. An official Commission for Peace was established in 2000 under President Jorge Batlle with the official report released in April 2003 confirming that the military dictatorship was involved in some of the disappearances.
This history of Chile’s dictatorship and eventual prosecutorial redress can be read about in my next blog. Part of the reason for the near-decade gap between the restoration of democracy (1990) and Pinochet’s arrest (1998) was due to Pinochet’s change of the constitution during military rule. Not only did he pardon himself and his torturers in 1978, but he enshrined legal protections from purges and lustration attempts. Nonetheless, Chile has engaged in memorialization and reparations in the cases of successful prosecution of former DINA police.
A Commission on the Truth of El Salvador was established in 1991, led by three international jurists and staffed and financed by the United Nations. While only fully investigating 33 disappearances out of the reported 22,000, the commission did identify 40 individuals connected to the armed forces and involved in crimes against humanity. Additionally, the Commission was able to confirm the El Mozote massacre, where nearly 1,000 villagers were killed by US-trained and equipped Salvadoran army members. The Commission also called on the Supreme Court to retire, which they declined. René Ponce was named general and ordered the execution of 6 Jesuit priests (one the then head of the Human Rights Institute). Due to Ponce’s involvement in the peace negotiations and settlement with FMLN, his prosecution was never attempted. The report from the truth commission was rejected and the then-president offered a blanket amnesty for all political crimes which the Supreme Court upheld (1995). After 20 years, no other transitional justice attempts have been implemented.
Haiti suffered massive human rights violations under the Duvalier reign between 1957 to 1986. Over 40,000 Haitians were killed and it wasn’t until 1990 that democracy was established with the election of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Soon after, he was ousted by General Raoul Cedras, showing just how volatile transitions toward democracy can be. Under Cedras, hundreds were killed by the paramilitary group Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), funded in part by the CIA. Democracy was restored in 1994 and power returned to Aristide but at the cost of blanket amnesty for all rapes, murders, and political killings. He went on to establish a National Commission for Truth and Justice which in February 1996 urged for the prosecution of individuals who committed crimes against humanity by an international tribunal. There has been no tribunal and no prosecutions, and to this day impunity is chronic.
Argentina took the most extensive approach of the states discussed so far. In 1983 after the defeat of the military in the Falklands Wars, President Raoul Alfonsín annulled the amnesty the military had given themselves. He also set up the Commission on the Disappeared which produced the report Nunca Más (Never Again) which was a national bestseller – fulfilling some forms of memorialization. The evidence the commission gathered was used to prosecute 5 of the most senior members of the military junta, but when indictments began on less senior officers the military revolted in 1987. Trials ceased to end the conflict but Alfonsín refused to give any pardons. His successor Carlos Menem was the one to pardon ex-president Videla and others on grounds of “national reconciliation.” In spite of Menem’s undermining, human rights groups and families of the disappeared renewed the vigor for criminal accountability in 2003, and as of 2010, more than 800 face criminal charges and 200 have been sentenced.
When one thinks of “truth and reconciliation” or “truth commissions,” the most likely example to come to mind is South Africa. After the end of apartheid (a crime against humanity) in 1994, the new democratic government formed the unique tripartite Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It had three responsibilities: (1) record the apartheid era for memory, (2) make recommendations for reparations, and (3) grant amnesty to individuals based on application and only in limited circumstances.
This was a revolutionary step for transitional justice and helped citizens come to terms with the violent and discriminatory apartheid. In spite of the success of this TRC, no prosecutions have ever been mounted and organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International fear the TRC suggestions are not being fully implemented.
Nonetheless, it is important to note that the commission was chaired by none other than Archbishop Desmond Tutu whose ceaseless human rights efforts have helped define the role of TRCs as both forward and backward-looking. In his words, “True reconciliation is never cheap, for it is based on forgiveness which is costly. Forgiveness in turn depends on repentance, which has to be based on an acknowledgment of what was done wrong, and therefore on disclosure of the truth. You cannot forgive what you do not know.”
For an in-depth examination of the transitional justice movement in the United States, please read Maya Crocker’s blog here.
Without addressing the seeds which sprouted violence, the threat of their reoccurrence cannot be escaped. This means acknowledgment, and hardest of all, forgiveness. While a generation suffered, hatred should not be allowed to pass down and threaten long-lasting peace.
This is not easy, but if you believe in human rights, affirming the realities of victims and perpetrators and all those in between is crucial. As Desmond Tutu says, “We must not only speak about forgiveness and reconciliation, we must act on these principles.”
This post draws a lot of information from the book Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice by Geoffrey Robertson, originally published in 1999 with multiple editions given the continuous development of human rights. I will be utilizing information from a 1999 edition, and thus, certain information on the results of transitional justice attempts will have developed more in the last two decades. If you are interested in obtaining a copy for yourself, the latest edition was updated in 2013 and includes additional sections on Iraq, Guantanamo, the Obama administration’s use of drone warfare, the Charles Taylor conviction, and the trials of Mladic, Karadzic, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
Geoffery Robertson is an internationally acclaimed lawyer and human rights advocate who has served as a UN war crimes judge and founded Doughty Street Chambers in London, a leading human rights law practice. In his book, he deconstructs international human rights law, beginning with the foundational philosophy of rights dialogue (natural rights, social contract, Enlightenment) and moving through the defining events of 20th-century human rights law formation. His book is written in a non-legalese, prose-like style and is a strong starting point for learning a breadth of information about the very complex processes behind prosecutions (and more often why they don’t happen).
If this interests you, read Robertson’s book or check out more blogs from IHR below:
What is the International Criminal Court and Why Should I Care?
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