The Claims of Our Common Cause

a portrait of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass. Source: Library of Congress, Public Domain. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004671911/.

Today is the last day of Black History Month… and what a month it has been. This blog is a nod to Frederick Douglass, who received a mention during a meeting earlier this month.  

Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1818. In 1848, ten years after his escape to freedom, he penned a letter to his white owner, Thomas Auld, who historians believe to be his father, regarding the reality that the determination to run away arose in him at six years old. In the letter, he vividly describes the moment in which he “attempted to solve the mystery, Why am I a slave?”

“… I was puzzled with this question, till one night, while sitting in the kitchen, I heard some old slaves talking of their parents having been stolen from Africa by white men, and were sold here as slave. The whole mystery was solved at one… From that time, I resolved that I would some day run away. The morality of the act, I dispose as follows: I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons. What you are, I am. You are a man, so am I. God created both, and made us separate beings. I am not by nature bound to you, or you to me. Nature does not make your existence depend on me, or mine to depend upon yours… In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living…”

Historian Eric Foner writes that although Douglass was a slave, Lucretia Auld–wife of Thomas–taught him to read and write until he forbade her, in accordance with Maryland law at the time. Douglass secretly continued his education with the help of some white children. In the South, the peculiar institution of slavery received elaborate justification from Christians willing to employ and misrepresent the scriptures in order to continue the dehumanizing treatment of African and American blacks, created by God, under the guise of inferiority and barbarianism. De Bow’s Review, published in 1850, states “…a very large part in the United States believe that holding slaves is morally wrong; this party founds its belief upon precepts taught in the Bible, and takes that book as the standard of morality and religion. We, also, look to the same book as out guide in the same matters; yet, we think it right to hold slaves—do hold them and have held and used them from childhood. We find, then, that both the Old and New Testament speak of slavery—that they do not condemn the relation, but, on the contrary, expressly allow it or create it… It cannot, then, be wrong.”

Wolfgang Mieder points out that when his education was taken from him as a child, Douglass “very consciously chose” to study and memorize material that would become useful as an adult. As a statesman, his mastery of the English language and his knowledge of the scriptures became a method of rebuke, persuasion, and a declaration of reversal of fortune. For Douglass, the biblical references provided an added authority and wisdom as morality and religion were one in the same. Mieder summarizes Douglass’ speeches and writings as an identifiable narrative, fought against slavery and injustice through the raising of a powerful voice that argued for the “strength of morality, equality, and democracy.”

Frederick Douglass observed a disconnection between the words of the Declaration of Independence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” and the treatment of blacks as a byproduct of slavery. He believed that from a political and personal standpoint, under natural law, every person possesses the same rights as another, and owed the honoring of those rights by another under God. Nicholas Buccola concludes that Douglass’ personal experience as a slave in the South then a free man in the North, shaped his worldview and belief that the promise of liberty has to belong to all or it belongs to none. He states that individualism negates the feeling of and the need for empathy, making it difficult to persuade another about the plight of someone who is not and never considered a neighbor. In other words, the sense of brotherhood is made obsolete because of individualism.

According to Leslie Friedman Goldsmith, Douglass “put his hopes in the press and pulpit for the moral education of America” while believing social reform would take place in politics as those in government became more concerned with the establishment of justice and the advancement of common good, rather than “the greedy quest for the material fruits of public office.” Douglass’ advocacy, as a member of a minority group, grew from a place of mutual understanding that the lack of moral responsibility finds correction in the adaption of moral obligation. Therefore, he focused on the role of the individual as a perpetuator of injustice or protector of human rights. By appealing to the empathic core—the soul–of an individual, Douglass hoped for a synergistic catalyst towards the eradication of slavery, and the humanization of blacks, whether free of enslaved, in America. As a result, under President Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the abolishment of slavery and involuntary servitude of the 13th amendment brought about a possible future for blacks in America.

Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes," mural by William Edouard Scott,
Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes,” mural by William Edouard Scott, at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943. 515 D St., NW, Washington, D.C. Source: Library of Congress, Public Domain. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010641714/

Civil equality was a fundamental platform for Frederick Douglass as he championed for the women’s rights, abolition of slavery, and the right to vote. Despite the victories of 1863, the true freedom of blacks remained his primary mission. Douglass demanded the extinction of racial prejudice and the false belief that the African lineage of black Americans disqualified them from the same rights as white Americans. Daniel Kilbride states that Douglass’ stance on Africa during his lifetime is similar to Countee Cullen’s questioning poem, Heritage during the Harlem Renaissance. He concludes that Frederick Douglass “treasured the values and institutions of the USA and insisted that the free enjoyment of them was a birthright of Americans of African descent.” It is imperative to understand that Douglass did not deny his ancestry; he accepted the discourse as irrelevant given the fact he was born in America.

During the late 1840s, the women’s movement was on the rise due to persistence of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott, among others. When Stanton formulated and organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, Frederick Douglass was on the platform as a main speaker. More specifically, he was the only male and person of color in support of women rights to equality, including the right to vote. Douglass summarized the convention in an 1848 North Star editorial article: “Many who have at least made the discovery that the Negroes have some rights as well as other members of the human family, have yet to be convinced that women are entitled to any. While it is impossible for us to go into this subject… Our doctrine is that ‘right is of no sex’”. Benjamin Quarles narrates the delicate interplay of Douglass’ personal friendship and political partnership with the women’s movement. Quarles notes the Reconstruction Era as the turning point in Douglass’ partnership with the women’s movement, as the question of what group deserved the right to vote first: blacks or women. “To women the vote is desirable; to the black, it is vital”, he pronounced. For Douglass, blacks as a people before women as a gender. He lamented in 1883, “for no where, outside of the United states, is a man denied civil rights on account of his color.” The recognition of blacks though the casting of votes was an “urgent necessity” post-Emancipation Proclamation.

Relevance for 2017

Frederick Douglass died in1895, yet his life, words, and legacy are still relevant for today. Earlier this month, Donald Trump mentioned Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” Interestingly enough: if Douglass were alive, the recognition could come in both positive and negative forms as he questioned and challenged slavery, prison reform, women’s rights, and all lives matter. The employment of the Scriptures as a justification for the present value and identity crisis taking place in America, given the values forfeiture of liberty and justice for all, in exchange for individualism, isolation, and rhetoric would undergird his critique.

First, human trafficking, in the form of sex and labor, is a new form of an old method. Kevin Bales suggests slavery failed to disappear in the 1860s because trade of people, through means of exploitation, has increased with modernization and globalization. He elucidates the subject of disposable people by informing that human trafficking is not a long-term cost investment due to high supply and high demands. The benefits of “ownership” have waned while the profits from slave trade dramatically increases because whether it is sex in Thailand or Brazil, tomatoes in Florida or chocolate from Ivory Coast, or the FIFA World Cup stadium in Qatar, slave laborers will be exploited in order to ensure the needs of consumer are met. Second, America has the highest incarceration population in the world. According to Bryan Stevenson, there is something missing from the judicial system, specifically in our treatment of the condemned, incarcerated, and those judged unfairly. The American prison system, as means to dehumanize human beings, particularly black Americans in 13th by Ava DuVernay and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, systemically removes human rights and destroys families. Former President Barack Obama implemented some justice reform, resulting in the commutation of thousands of non-violent offenders. Third, Frederick Douglass would be an advocate for HeForShe. As a feminist, Douglass would question why men have consumed the decision making power about women, from pay to maternity leave and healthcare rights, without consulting them, or at the very least, having them present when signing laws about their personhood. Finally, America’s treatment of her citizens—the marginalized because of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or identity, and ability—the blatant denial of human rights while championing all lives matter and pro-life. The plight of marginalized Americans remains trapped under the thumb of the majority, whereas the words of Douglass’ The Claims of Our Common Cause apply:

“…A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us. As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white country-men do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious to our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimates us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt. It will not be surprising that we are so misunderstood and misused when the motives for misrepresenting us and for degrading us are duly considered.”

In 1853, our common cause stood as a pronouncement, emphasizing the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the marginalized, specifically blacks. Today, our common cause stands as a banner to those in power and opposed to change because of prejudice. The banner signifies the past while embracing the fullness offered in those presently dismissed–doctors, farmers, merchants, teachers, ministers, lawyers, editors, etc.–American citizens who, through unity and belief in the foundational values of this country, fought and fight against every perpetuation of injustice “with pride and hope”.

 

 

Additional resources:

Louise Shelly

Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter

Rhonda Callaway & Julie Harrleson-Stephens

Bryan Stevenson

Jeff Guo

The Right to Food: A Government Responsibility

a picture of a fresh fruit stand
Fruit. Source: Glenn Dettwiler, Creative Commons.

Good nutrition plays a vital role in a person’s health, ranging from growth and development to mental health. The consumption of healthier foods significantly reduces the risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. Additionally, the immune system improves and delays the aging process. In the United States, good nutrition is expensive nutrition; a luxury many low-income families abandon. Essential expenses– rent, utilities, clothing, and health are priority for many families with limited disposable, therefore, forgoing the nutritious food option.

Income disparities contribute to poor nutrition. Higher income families can select healthier foods because their higher income provides access to places that provide healthy options, whereas, lower income families due to city planning and a lack of urban development, receive pre-packaged, canned, and fast food. Healthy foods can be pricey and the additional sales tax is regressive towards lower income families. The local and state government has a duty to their inhabitants to provide access to nutritious food and proper education regarding the importance of a healthy lifestyle while economically conscious about the impacts of high sales tax on foods.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) describes the right to an adequate standard of living. A key tenet, accounted for, is the right to food. This is accomplished when every person “has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or the means for its procurement” according to the Icelandic Human Rights Center. The right to food is an essential birthright; a denial means a violation of other rights.

Dr. Mariana Chilton and Dr. Donald Rose assert the right to food–adequate, nutritional food–adheres to three intrinsic policies: the need to respect, protect, and the fulfillment of human rights. To respect human rights, food must be accessible. In some regions in the United States for example, nutritional food is out of reach yet available are fast food restaurants providing cheap, less sustainable food. The protection human rights means others cannot impede the accessibility of food. According to the UNHR Office of the High Commissioner, there is enough food produced in the world to feed its entire population. Unfortunately, the problem lies in the access to food, whether it be poverty or famine, discrimination, or lack of transportation. In order to ensure human rights as related to adequate standard of living, the creation of an enabling environment that provides for and allows for the procurement adequate food becomes the mandate of government officials.

a map of Visual Representation of Taxes in Each State. Source: Tax Foundation
Visual Representation of Taxes in Each State. Source: Tax Foundation

Adequate food refers to healthy, nutritious food that our body needs to survive. Consuming nutritious food leads to numerous health benefits including, but not limited to, maintaining a healthy weight, allowing organ systems to function optimally, and promoting sleep. For the most part, the good quality foods are on the high-priced side, which leads people to avoid it. A documentary, Food, Inc., highlights the America’s corporate controlled food industry. A segment in the documentary shows a family of four, low-income, and their struggle in deciding between a burger from a fast food restaurant or broccoli from the supermarket. “Sometimes you look at a vegetable and say, ‘okay, we can get two hamburgers over here for the same amount of price’”. This ultimatum is difficult for families. They do not have a substantial amount of money to spend; however, the purchase the unhealthy foods means the purchase unsaturated fats and cholesterol that can increase the risk of diseases. The growing children are not receiving proper nourishment needed to supply their brain and body with energy or their bones with calcium, which is violation of a basic human right. The United States government can help low-income families receive nutritious food by adjusting the tax policies. Some states, Pennsylvania for example, have high sales tax of 6% and it caps the localities ability to impose local sales tax up to 2%. This, however, offsets the high sales tax by exempting uncooked nutritious groceries, clothes, and prescription drugs. A state like Alabama is at the opposite end as it has a low sales tax of 4% and allows localities to tax up to 7% more thus driving up to sales tax to one of the highest in the United States. In addition, Alabama does not exempt clothes, groceries, and prescription which leads the lower income family to spend a majority of their income of purchasing food.

The United States, internationally, opposed the notion of food as a human right. In 1996, the World Food Summit, sponsored by the United Nations, affirmed the “right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food.” While other sovereign nations signed agreeing with that statement, the United States refused to, insisting that hunger could lead to “international obligation or domestic legal entitlement”. In 2002, during another World Food Summit, the United States, again, opposed that food is a human right. According to Pol and Schuftan, the United States understands the right to access to food to connote the prospect to secure food, not a “guaranteed entitlement” and the “adequate standard of living is a goal or aspiration to be realized progressively”. Furthermore, the United States, Canada, and other European countries “have consistently and openly not been sympathetic” to the right to food as a provision of the state.

a picture entitled The Colour before the storm... Nyhavn, copenhagen
The Colour before the storm… Nyhavn, Copenhagen. Source: Joe Hunt, Creative Commons.

In contrast, Denmark agreed that there is a right to food. The Danish government recognized that if an individual or a community had deficient access to nutritious food and health that they are “kept in poverty and exclusion”. The country also understands that the usage of technology and scientific knowledge can increase the knowledge of nutrition and how it can benefit it citizens. Meik Wiking reports that although Denmark taxes heavily, almost 45% of the average citizen’s income, citizens believe there is an overall investment in their quality of life. The taxes collected from Danes provide several welfare programs. For example, student’s tuition and health care are free, a reduction of stress of lower income families in Denmark significantly. In the United States, a low-income family fret over school, health care, and housing so much so that they neglect to take care of the nutritional food aspect. Not surprising in some states in America, food is not tax exempt. Denmark’s citizens contentedly pay for taxes because they are safe financially.

Overall, lower income families often struggle because of limited financial means. With the added burden of the sales tax on groceries, eating right becomes difficult. The lack of nutrition leads to poorer performance in daily activities which puts a hindrance on growth and development. States like Alabama and Mississippi have allowed for higher income families to be comfortable regarding property taxes but allowed for the lower income families to be susceptible to paying more for nutritional food than they can afford. The state has a duty to their people, all people, for a sustainable, healthy, living standard.

 

 

 

 

A Tie that Binds and Shapes Us

a picture of 16th Street Baptist Church from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
The 16th Street Baptist Church across from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Source: Beth Bryan, Creative Commons.

Barack Obama, in one of his last acts as president, signed a proclamation that designated the Birmingham Civil Rights District as a national monument. For those unaware, the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the A.G. Gaston Motel, Bethel Baptist Church, the Colored Masonic Temple, St. Paul United Methodist Church, portions of the 4th Avenue Business District, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  These locations are “hallowed grounds” for Birmingham because they serve as the epicenter American Civil Rights Movement.  We speak of the history regarding these locations. Sixteenth Street Baptist Church stands as the site of a horrific bombing that claimed the lives of four black girls: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair. However, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was also—and still continues to serve as–a social center and lecture hall for education and social awareness; a headquarters for activism; and a platform for heralded visitors as it did in the past, for leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Ralph Bunche, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and most recently, Attorney General of the United States, Loretta Lynch who spoke her final message as a public servant.  The Colored Masonic Temple, which beyond its beautiful architecture, sat as the centerpiece for lively Black owned businesses and a booming downtown social life.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and some of the movement’s top leaders strategized in room 30 of the A.G. Gaston Motel, which also became known as the “war room”. Additionally, in this room, Dr. King made the decision to submit himself to being jailed—resulting in a “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. To this day, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” serves as the most important written document of the civil rights era because of its tangible reproduced accounts in the fight for freedom and King’s response to the broad criticisms he has received from around the country. As you can imagine, I can write at considerable length about the historical facts and pieces of information I have picked up from the Birmingham Civil Rights District. However, the focus of this post is to address why this national monument is important.

The National Monument is a Mile Marker for Racial and Social Progress

What a society and its citizens choose to remember and create moments for, communicates a great deal about where their beliefs lie. At the same time, there is essential learning in understanding what a society chooses to forget. That said, I think that it is critical for each generation to understand the struggles and sacrifices many have endured to achieve equal rights because that cultural memory plays a role in the shaping of our collective identity. To this degree, we must accept the ugly truth that racism is embedded within our society and remnants of its power still resides within today’s social structure. In order for us to move forward in the solving of social problems, we must embrace this part of our history and understand how the intersections of race, class, privilege, gender, and so forth influences current issues. If not, then the politics of denial will continue to  define teachings of American Civil Rights Movement into a one month a year curriculum composed of mainstream heroes that is not taught widely enough or comprehensively addressed at various school levels. Through the national monument, we as global citizens are pushed to think critically about our past. We are challenged to ask ourselves how can we move forward in the fight for equality and equity locally and globally.  As important, we are reminded that the fight is not over.

This National Monument Preserves a “Balanced Realness” of African-American Culture

There is more to African-American culture than the mainstream depictions which tend to populate and reinforce negative stereotypes through mainstream media. The story of black people in Birmingham is one which highlights how individuals are able to rise from second class citizenship to obtain an education, contribute to society, maintain families, and overcome multiple challenges serves as a critical element of our American lineage. Through the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, we are afforded the opportunity to hear those stories; learn of all the heroes and their sacrifices; and to speak with some of those “living griots” who volunteer to share their own knowledge and experiences with the public. And, it is just not in the very people. As previously stated, this national monument is hallowed grounds because the location itself is a symbolic repository of African-American culture that has often been paved over, gone through urban renewal, gentrified, and left to stand as unidentified culture markers in major cities.

The National Monument Reinforces the Hope of Our Collective Community

The Birmingham Civil Rights District is not just Black history; it is American history. In a society that continues to diversify and splinter, it is crucial for us to be reminded that we are still one community. Together, we share a common heritage and history of hope and resilience through tough times. To me, the beauty of the civil rights movement is that when you reflect, there are continuous instances where multiple ethnic and cultural groups have decided to unite in the face of oppression. Today, we are facing with some unique challenges. There are segments of our population who are not only oppressed, but seeking refuge and allies to stand with them. As we look for answers, our national monument stands as a constant reminder that we are the change that we wish to see, and all we have to do is come together.  In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”

In closing, the national monument is more than just a series of historical buildings and educational centers containing a collection of objects and documents. It is a powerful reminder of Birmingham’s culture and its impact on the larger American story. I am confident that as the fight for equality, equity and inclusion continues, we will find a way to find opportunity in the midst of life’s challenges because that is what we do. In the words of John Henrik Clarke, “What we have done before, we can do again.”

Empowering Marginalized Voices in Birmingham – a Recap

a picture of the panelists
StandAsOne Panelists. Source: Tyler Goodwin.

On February 16th, Stand As One Alabama partnered with the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Institute for Human Rights, and several other organizations to put on an event titled: Empowering Marginalized Voices in Birmingham. The event was held on UAB’s campus, and was live-streamed throughout the world. You can see the event in its entirety here.

“This is to fight hate, tyranny, and fear mongering principles….this is the way forward,”

– speaker Ashfaq Taufique proudly announced as he opened the event.

The event featured nine panelists from marginalized communities: Jillisa Milton, representing the Birmingham Chapter of Black Lives Matter; Angel Aldana, representing the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice; Halah Zein-Sabatto, representing the Birmingham Islamic Society; Dan Kessler, representing Disability Rights and Resources; Isabel Rubio, representing the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama; Lauren Jacobs, the Youth Outreach Chair of the Magic City Acceptance Center, a center devoted to the LGBTQ+ youth of Birmingham; Tai Hicks, president of the National Organization of Women; Rabbi Barry Left, from Temple Beth-El; Reverend Angie Right, of Greater Birmingham Ministries.

The discussion began with the premiere of a film produced by McKenzie Greer, a UAB film student and intern for the Institute for Human Rights, showcasing the struggles of fellow UAB students who are a part of marginalized communities. The emotional video gave a small bit of insight into the pain that those featured in the film have felt and still feel today. Watch the video by Greer here:

[vimeo 204448381 w=640 h=360]
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/204448381″>Stand As One Alabama by Kenzie Greer</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/mediastudies”>UAB Media Studies</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>

“I feel hurt and angry. Hurt by a country that I consider my home, that I now have to prove my loyalty to. Angry that I have to constantly prove my normalcy to other people to prove I am not dangerous.”

“I was scared to get off the bus each morning, and thankful to get back on in the afternoon.”

“Being a part of a marginalized community is a full-time job.”

“She’s pregnant? That’s what she gets for having sex. She must’ve been stupid about it.”

“You have to be the best at whatever you decide to do, because people will automatically think of you as incompetent and unqualified, simply because you’re black.”

“She felt blatantly racially profiled, and that he thought she was a maid.”

“Just because someone is slower at learning and retaining does not mean they are stupid.”

Emotions filled the room as the production came to a close. Prior to the event, the panelists were asked to answer three questions as part of the discussion:

What are the challenges that you and your organization face?

What have you done to adjust those challenges?

How do you see the future if we do stand as one?

“It would be impossible to talk about the challenges we face in four minutes,” Milton said. She further discussed how “We have to challenge our allies all the time,” meaning members of the Black Lives Matter movement must go through greater lengths to rally their allies who do not identify as Black, as it does not affect them. She mentioned how it was difficult to obtain a sense of unity with their allies for this reason. “We are skeptical about other people’s support of our movement as a whole (we don’t typically see the same passion as shown with other movements), but continue to challenge others to address the barriers and to step outside of their comfort zones.”

As Aldana spoke, he described that the Hispanics almost seemed invisible. “With the Alabama Coalition of Immigrant Justice, we would like to work with our allies, so that we can identify ourselves as allies…as an Immigrant, and as a Mexican citizen of Birmingham, we want to protect and defend our identity just as you do.”

Zein-Sabatto proclaimed, “it comes down to systematic hate…Islamophobia is actually a billion-dollar industry…there are people who are assimilating xenophobia.” She explained how she told her family overseas how much she enjoyed America, and how that it is no longer the “rainbows and roses” that she once thought. “We must reclaim our narrative,” she said, reflecting on how one member of the Muslim community is asked by society to represent the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, losing their individuality. “You will find us with our headscarves and beards in the grocery store, on the streets, as your neighbors, doctors, colleagues, students, and teachers.” Moving forward, she explained that she has hope. “History repeats itself, and it is just repeating itself with another group.”

“If we look over the past hundred years, we see oppression and segregation against people with disabilities,” Kessler began, “while we have seen gains since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we still have a long way to go…we still hear such language as ‘cripple’, ‘special’, ‘wheelchair bound’, and ‘handicapped’.” He gave us insight on the challenges the community faces in the workplace: “Unemployment of anyone with disabilities is the highest of any marginalized group in the nation.” Kessler then brought to light the issue of segregation in the education system against those with disabilities, and how there are bills in motion trying to limit their education rights. He also spoke of how the turmoil of the disabled community does not end after their schooling in grade school, he told of the institutional bias in the long-term care services. “Have you ever tried to use Uber?” he asked, as he then put perspective into what is like to be disabled and unable to receive the same services as those who are not, “try being disabled and having an Uber driver have to turn you away because they are ill-equipped.”

Rubio began her answer with a powerful statement: “Discrimination is legalized toward immigrants.” She spoke of the laws against immigrants at the state and federal levels. “Immigration laws are currently weighted to favor immigrants from northern Europe, therefore tacitly enforcing an ideology of white supremacy in the US.” Speaking more on the bias against immigrants, she told us how there are places in Alabama where immigrants cannot get water services. The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama helped to register 1,000 voters this past year, and for that reason among others, Rubio says, “The future is hopeful. There is something going on and we have to do something about it…we can’t stand for where we are now.”

Jacobs, whose organization works specifically with the LGBTQ+ youth at the Magic City Acceptance Center, enlightened us on how the LGBTQ+ youth faces challenges such as being unable to find friendly and competent educators and healthcare providers, and lacking family support. She also educated us on the statistics surrounding the community: “Three in four trans students are not allowed to use the bathroom in Alabama; four in five are not identified properly…The average life expectancy for a trans woman of color is 35 years…Trans students are targeted by peers, family, and teachers.” She implored that we must be the ones who say something if we see something, and that “Standing as one would be a commitment to staying in struggle with each other.”

“Whenever you do anything in your life, your gender is a factor.” Hicks said, as she explained the issues that women face in today’s society. She and her organization, Greater Birmingham National Organization for Women, have been working to achieve social justice for women and other minority groups as well in Birmingham. She spoke on how people think that women in the US have it good compared to other countries, and that they should all just “shut up.” Reflecting back on the marches that happened earlier this year, and earlier in the century, “They have no idea how long we have been fighting,” she said. “You should have the right to raise a child, and feel safe that a government official is not going to gun them down.”

Left began saying , “Speaking on a panel like this to a group of people like this was not something I thought I would be doing in Birmingham.” To relate to the different ethnicities, identities and religions in the room, he said, “The same people who hate Blacks, Mexicans, and Muslims, often hate Jews.” He spoke of how a family recently withdrew their child from his religious school at the Temple Beth-El, in fear of being attacked. “People don’t feel safe anymore.” He gave his history on how he was once evacuated from Iran 38 years ago, saying he felt a connection to refugees. “Many communities feel under attack; anyone who isn’t a straight, white, heterosexual, Christian male, and even they feel threatened by losing their dominance.” He ended on a note to rally the communities in the room: “We are much stronger as one community instead of several separate communities.”

a picture of two people touching hands in unity
Unity. Source: Phillip Taylor, Creative Commons.

After the panelists gave their written answers, the audience was given the opportunity to ask them their own questions.

  • What are the next steps for someone who wants to stand with you?
    • Think before you post. There is a lot of fake information out there.
    • Build a personal relationship with someone in another marginalized community. Your efforts will go farther when you have a connection.
    • If you see something, say something.
    • Contact your elected officials.
    • Plan for accessibility at each event (contact Disability Rights and Resources to figure out how to accommodate).
    • Support immigrant businesses.
    • Fund the resistance.
    • Educate yourself on human rights. Find out where to go when your rights are violated.

Here are some ways to get involved with the organizations represented at this event:

  • If you identify as Black, connect with the Black Lives Matter Chapter of Birmingham on Facebook, or email birminghamblm@gmail.com. If you would like to get involved with Black Lives Matter, but do not identify as Black, SURJE (Showing Up for Racial Justice) meets every month at Beloved Community Church, and you can also connect with them on Facebook.
  • The Birmingham Islamic Society is having an open house on February 26th from 2 – 5 at the Hoover Islamic Center. All religions are welcome. You can also email them by going to the “Contact us” page on their website: bisweb.org
  • You can contact the ACIJ by going to their website: acij.net, or connect with them on Facebook.
  • You can contact the Disabilities Rights and Resources by going to their website: drradvocates.org
  • The Magic City Acceptance Center holds Drop-In Hours every Tuesday and Thursday from 3:30pm to 7pm. You can also visit their website: magiccityacceptancecenter.org
  • You can connect with the National Organization for Women on their website: org/chapter/greater-birmingham-now/ or on their Facebook.
  • The Temple Beth-El’s website is: templebeth-el.net/
  • To join the Stand As One text alert for when any Human Rights Issue is threatened at your local or national level, text “STANDASONE” to 313131

A Right to Fair and Objective Press

a picture of an old associated press news machine
Associated Press. Source: rochelle hartman, Creative Commons.

Freedom of the Press has always been a hallmark of our American democracy.  In fact, our Founders thought it to be so important they made it the first amendment to our Constitution, guaranteeing all citizens the right to free speech.  Our Founders recognized the right to free speech is required for a healthy and free society. No society can claim to be free without the right of its citizens to speak their minds without fear of impunity. The public also has a right to the facts concerning transparency in their government and other public institutions, like the media. However, not everyone enjoys this liberty. The relationship between the press and the society it serves varies from one society to another. The purpose of this blog is to explore the impact media has on a society and its relationship to the public as an increasingly private institution in the United States.

When our Founders were framing the Constitution of the United States of America, and preparing for independence, the British authorities attempted to quell the uprising by regulating the media. This allowed only information that the British authority approved to circulate among the public.  For example, in the early 1700s an English loyalist governor in New York, William Cosby sued John Peter Zenger for sedition when Zenger published editorials about Cosby’s oppressive and tyrannical style of governance in the New York Weekly Journal.  These editorials made the public aware of Cosby’s attempt to rig elections, use public funds for his own private interests and the appropriation of Indian lands. Cosby had Zenger arrested and tried to close the Journal for business.  Andrew Hamilton, a popular lawyer, took the case and defended Zenger by arguing that Zenger could only be libel if what he printed was falsely seditious. Zenger acquittal and Hamilton’s argument still stands today: a publisher is libel only when falsehoods are committed. This case set the precedent for freedom of speech and the press, later adopted by our Founders as the First Amendment of the Constitution (Kammen, 1975).

In this modern era, we face new challenges concerning mass media and freedom of the press in the United States. Increasingly, we have gotten away from the objective journalism of the 1950s and 1960s where both sides of an issue were represented with facts and allowed the informed citizen to come to their own conclusion. Today, news organizations have become more varied and focused on one perspective or another, be it liberal, conservative or some other view beyond the mainstream.  We have witnessed the shift from objective journalism to indoctrination in most of our mass media over the past few decades. This is mainly due to competition over network viewership and ratings. It seems as though we have been lulled into a trap, like a child in a candy store that immediately fills their pockets with their favorite candy and ignores the rest. As free citizens, we have a responsibility to seek out the facts and think for ourselves. We have a responsibility to explore perspectives different than our own and attempt to see the world from another’s vantage point. The alternative is state news with certain views and opinions silenced, if not conforming to an authoritarian agenda. With freedom comes responsibility; a responsibility left to us by those who have sacrificed and died for every freedom we enjoy today.  We cannot allow their sacrifice to be forgotten, nor the lessons of the past unlearned.  For surely if we fail in our duties as free citizens, our children and grandchildren will be the ones to pay the price for that negligence and the struggles of our forefathers will define their lives and new heroes and sacrifices will have to be made in order to regain these freedoms.

a picture of a stack of newspapers
Newspapers. Source: Dave Crosby, Creative Commons.

Freedom of the Press has historically been a public service, providing real contributions to our society. When television started dominating American culture in the 1950’s and 1960s, Walter Cronkite, a journalist with CBS, known as the “most trusted man in America”.  News organizations were unequivocally trusted by the American public. Increasingly, private news organizations have come to the forefront since the implementation of cable television. C-SPAN, arrived first in the late 1970s, followed by CNN in the early 1980s, followed by Fox News Channel and MSNBC during the mid-1990s. These media heavyweights enjoy mass popularity and most Americans receive their TV news from one of these sources. The issue that has recently arisen with these news organizations is the conflict of interest between providing accurate, objective journalism for the public and creating their presentation flashy and provocative in order to attract viewers. Additionally, they have tailored their news to attract a specific audience by making it less objective and more like doctrine. For example, many conservatives are likely to watch Fox News while many liberals are likely to watch MSNBC. The reason for this is these news outlets have designed their programming to attract viewers based on their political philosophy.  This presents a corruptibility within our news media because it is impossible for objective journalism, a public service, and propaganda designed for a specific audience, to raise private corporate profits, to coexist. These are mutually exclusive concepts because any “slant” on the facts automatically removes objectivity from the equation. Journalism causes one to think and concluded based on facts.  Propaganda disengages the brain because it offers a solitary perspective and plays on an individual’s beliefs, generally to perpetuate a specific worldview.

Sweden ranks among the top of the world for its version of Freedom of the Press, while the United States is currently ranked 28th out of 197. It might come as a surprise to many Americans that Sweden, in 1766, was the first country in the world to guarantee freedom of speech and the press. At the same time, Sweden ended all censorship within the country. In addition, all Swedish government documents are accessible to the public, unlike in the United States where some government information is classified and illegal for the public to access. A key factor in this ranking are constraints placed on our press freedom due to national security.

Mass media can play other roles in society aside from just serving as a watchdog for public institutions. In her book, Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World, Maria Armoudian explains the power of the media to influence for bad as well as good. She points to Senegal as an example of the power of community to ensure the media reported the true nature of the happenings in the villages. In Senegal, female genital cutting or mutilation (FGC/FGM) had been a long-standing rite of passage for most of the young teenage girls over the past five thousand years. This is not akin to male circumcision in our own culture, though there are a few parallels. For the Senegalese females, this procedure removes the clitoris and labia, often without modern medical aids such as anesthesia. In many cases, the girls are held down while the procedure is done with unsterilized crude tools, told the process will make them a “real woman”, and taught that the suffering is a “moral duty”. This practice originated as a village celebration for girls entering marriage and motherhood. Many of the young girls that have experienced FGC have health problems later in their life, mainly with infections, hemorrhaging, ulceration, cysts, scarring or problems arising during childbirth. In 1997, a movement began in rural villages to discontinue this harmful practice.  By 2008, thousands of communities had joined the movement away from FGC tradition. This attributed to education facilitated by Tostan, a nonprofit organization originally founded to teach children to read, and mass media that introduced new ideas to many villagers and depicted the Senegalese women as brave and intelligent in their struggle for health and human rights (Armoudian, 2011). Mass media can be a useful tool in combatting cultural stagnation, by bringing issues to light. The combined efforts of Tostan and the mass media garnered national attention and sparked dialogue, which brought about cultural change, through education, for the women of Senegal.

In conclusion, Freedom of the Press is undoubtedly important for any society to claim freedom and democracy as its core ideals. The public institution of mass media is a powerful force in our modern social world for change, evident in the example of FGC in Senegal. However, this powerful force is not automatic nor invincible, and any freedom gained by a society may be lost, if not given the proper attention and respect. As a society, we cannot allow the dismantling of our public institutions by private interests, seeking a profit with no concern for public welfare and security. This is how freedoms are lost.  Democracies possess an engaged public sector that relishes diversity of thinking, including political ideology. We, as free citizens, must learn to actively explore views different from our own, and not become dogmatic and intolerant through specialized media. This is how societies progress and prosper.  This is how we learn and grow as human beings. If we fail in this endeavor, it might not be long before one perspective is all one knows and has access to and it could be the end of the free society we all treasure for ourselves and the generations to come.

References:

Kammen, Michael. Colonial New York: A History, New York: Oxford University Press, 1975

Armoudian, Maria. Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World, Prometheus Books, 2011.

Right to and Role of an Education

 

a picture of a one way sign with the word EDUCATION written on it
Education: a street sign. Source: OTA Photos, Creative Commons

‘Ms. Crenshaw, make sure Jasmine keeps writing’. My mom was told this by my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Williams, at my school’s open house event after she had read my book report on “The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963”. Mrs. Williams also had our class to write journal entries regularly throughout the entire school year. She gave us topics to write about, from everyday events to what our favorite things were as nine-year-olds. One entry of mine was about the weekend where I was baptized at my church. In the entry, I wrote about my shopping adventures to find a white baptism dress and how excited I was to experience this new part of my faith. Thanks to Mrs. Williams, I was affirmed in my writing abilities. Between elementary and high school, I had other teachers–mostly Black women–who encouraged, criticized, and strengthened my writing skills. As a teenager feeling inspired by books, music, and television, I wrote in my journals regularly. I also wrote poems, mini-novels, and essays, most of which will never see the light of day. I wrote these pieces because of the confidence Mrs. Williams had in my writing. And I’m forever grateful for her. Those skills have served me well through my collegiate and post-collegiate careers.

Education and mentorship is important for all girls and women to experience, especially for girls and women of color. For most of my life, Black women were in the front of my classrooms, teaching everything from English to Chemistry, while making sure that me and my peers were empowered to become our best selves. When students are presented with that type of environment, the sky’s the limit. There have been plenty of examples shared across social media platforms, where teachers have affirmed their students’ individuality and their desire to learn. In a video from Nadine S. Ebri’s classroom in La Core Christian Academy in Florida, two of her students are calculating a long division problem on the whiteboard, as her classmates, and her teacher sing a song to help her answer the question correctly. In another video, Jasmyn Wright, a third-grade reading teacher in Philadelphia, goes through an empowerment exercise with her students before they start the day. I do understand when students–especially those of color and those from other marginalized communities–do not have access to this environment at times.

Some students may not feel open to being in affirming learning environments due to previous disciplinary actions or because their previous teachers  had a lack of compassion for them. In multiple Southern states, it was found that Black students are expelled or suspended five times than the rest of their student population (Smith and Harper, 2015). Girls of color, especially Black girls, experience difficulties with this, especially when they are disciplined at higher rates than other racial/ethnic groups in the classroom nationally (National Women’s Law Center, 2016). When girls of color are being disciplined more and unjustly in classrooms, they might feel a sense of detachment and hurt, which might interfere with them wanting to continue working toward their educational aspirations (The White House, 2016; African-American Policy Forum, 2015).

a picture of girls playing clarinets while in a computer lab
Education. Source: Erin Lodes, Creative Commons.

Girls and young women of color, among other marginalized communities, such as those who identify as LGBTQIA+ and those with disabilities, also experience lack of access and availability to the resources they need to thrive in the classroom. In the case of our city of Birmingham, educational inequity between Whites and non-Whites, primarily African-American students, has existed since the early 1900s (Jefferson County Place Matters Team, 2013). Similar to other parts in the South, Birmingham underwent radical changes once ‘white flight’ occurred during the late 1950s, causing White citizens to create new towns and school systems in Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook (Colby, 2012). This level of educational inequity has continued even into 2017. A large income and poverty disparity remains between the Birmingham City School and the Mountain Brook City School districts, significant enough for it to rank highly on NPR’s list of the top 50 most segregated school borders in the country (Turner, 2016). When it comes to gender and sexual orientation, students in Alabama may feel that some of their schools are not equipped to handle the types of bullying and discriminatory behaviors they experience daily. This may be due to lack of safe spaces, lack of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), and lack of teacher/administrative training (The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, 2016). When students’ identities intersect, as being both Black and impoverished or Hispanic and gay (for example), they might feel more uneasiness about whether or not they belong in the classroom.

When students are not provided the resources they need or the affirming learning environment they deserve, this becomes an infringement on their right to have an proper education. Financial disparity, poverty, inexperienced teachers and staff, and unequal disciplinary tactics all contribute to this. Given our new administration and the new Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, we all have a responsibility to make sure our students have the best chance to a great education, however that may look like, and to become whatever they please. Our commitment the responsibility may vary. It may be through representation in media, mentoring programs, after school programs, or just students knowing that they are loved and they are seen. Every student should have a chance to meet their own Mrs. Williams and unlock their potential for greatness.

 

Jasmine E. Crenshaw earned both her Bachelors of Science in Psychology and her Masters of Public Health in Health Care Organization and Policy from at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2014 and 2016, respectively. She works as a public health professional, a writer, and the media curator of the online Southern feminist digital hub, Curated in Color. You can find Curated in Color at facebook.com/curatedincolor.

References

Colby, T. (2012). Some of my best friends are Black: The strange story of school integration in America. [Book]

Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, The. (2016, August). Living LGBTQ+ in Central Alabama: Priorities for action. Retrieved from http://www.cfbham.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Living-LGBTQ-in-Central-Alabama.pdf

Jefferson County Place Matters Team. (2013). Place matters for health in Jefferson County, Alabama: The status of health equity on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement in Birmingham. A special report. Retrieved from http://media.al.com/spotnews/other/Place%20Matters%20for%20Health%20in%20Jefferson%20County%20Alabama.pdf

National Women’s Law Center, The. (2016). Let Her Learn: A Toolkit to Stop School Push Out for Girls of Color. Retrieved from http://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/final_nwlc_NOVO2016Toolkit.pdf

Smith, E.J. and Harper, S.R. (2015). Disproportionate impact of K-12 school suspension and explusion on Black students in southern states. Philadelphia: University of Pennslyvania, Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. Retrieved from https://www.gse.upenn.edu/equity/sites/gse.upenn.edu.equity/files/publications/Smith_Harper_Report.pdf

Turner, C. (2016, August 23). The 50 most segregating school borders in America. NPREd. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/08/23/490513305/the-50-most-segregating-school-borders-in-america

White House, The. (2016, December). Advancing Equity for Women and Girls of Color: 2016 Updated Report. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/images/2016%20CWG%20WGOC%20REPORT%20.pdf

 

 

Women’s March: An Evolution in Global Solidarity

picture of Washington, DC Women's March 2017
DC Women’s March. Source: Liz Lemon, Creative Commons.

On January 21, 2017, over five million people marched–on all seven continents–in solidarity for women’s issues. In Washington D.C, one million marchers made their voices heard, nearly three times the size of the crowd at the inauguration, according to crowd scientists. The Birmingham, Alabama march numbered nearly five thousand, to the surprise of organizers who expected closer to several hundred. The official Women’s March website states the platform and approach is committed to equality, diversity, and inclusion. While initially, the Trump administration may have been the fuel for this rise, the movement presently signifies an international protest against the growing threat of a dishonest narrative about women’s rights and unjust treatment of them.

The sheer numbers of attendees at the march inspired and infused hope into the hearts of many deeply opposed to the injustices within the context of women’s rights. Critics of the march seem to misinterpret the intentions of marchers by claiming that the cause was American-centric, thus ignoring the subjugation of women globally. There is some validity to this, in that, the focus of many marchers remained centered in American political issues, and often excluded some key actors from the discussion like transgender people. However, many critics used these potentially valid grounds to deny the existence of oppression in America. Blogger Stephanie Dolce, after listing a series of wrongs against women in other countries, writes, “So when women get together in America and whine they don’t have equal rights and march in their clean clothes, after eating a hearty breakfast, it’s like a vacation away that they have paid for to get there.” This critical narrative reveals the false impression that many Americans have about women’s rights, the nature of protests, and the human right to participate in protest.

picture of girl holding signs at Birmingham Alabama Women's march 2017
Women’s March in Birmingham, AL January 2017. Source: Ajanet Rountree.

Dolce mentioned the issues of rape, limited education access, gender violence, and denial of bodily autonomy through legislation, infanticide, and female genital mutilation (FGM). She then suggests that American women do not experience these acts of violence and oppression. To believe that these issues are absent in America is to remain blinded by privilege. Dolce’s argument, supported and shared many times across social media, is rooted in privilege—a privilege that often undermines the nature of exploitation and oppression of another because distance rather than proximity and a lack of knowledge discredit the acknowledgement of an experience.

Marchers in cities around the world reflected the microcosm of the global civic society. It is highly unlikely that Dolce, who is vocally critical of the march, attended a protest based on her blog writing. Conversely, I have been an advocate for human rights for years and decided to experience the Birmingham march firsthand. I found myself deeply moved by the variety of issues and identities represented; therefore, I can bear witness to a crowd of people marching for a diverse set of causes, each inherently political but not as a political reaction. Protest signs held high regarding immigration, environmental issues, racism, disability rights, and more, dotted the landscape of Kelly Ingram Park. The diversity of the city was visible in the composition of marchers and their causes. The harsh, judgmental “anti-Trump” rhetoric is an insult to social justice, as this march and subsequent protests, are not about him or any one person.

The highly divisive stage in American politics provides a vehicle of change through shock and outrage; fortunately, the movement is not limited to the American arena. This activism is not a backlash to the election or simply a march about women’s issues. This is not, as some may see it, a petty protest against the shift in ideology represented in our new president. This is the beginning of a global movement to protect rights presently impacted by global structural violence targeted towards women specifically, and humanity generally.

picture of Women's March in London 2017
Women’s March London. Source: Garry Knight, Creative Commons

The Women’s March website has listed steps to transform the vigorous energy seen on January 21 into a long-term international movement. Given the millions of marchers who came out, it is hard to imagine that the momentum and awareness for women’s rights will simply fade away. The evolution of the movement is already underway. They currently have two “global action steps” listed and a third still developing. First, communicate concerns for women’s rights by contacting representatives, using postcards or letters with a picture of the march. Second, organize local “next up huddles” which are intended to foster support and community. The goal is that each area brainstorm a “set of actions and strategies our group will pursue in the coming weeks and months”, mobilizing the community through grassroots activism and people power.  The grassroots approach, fueled by people power, is essential because it empowers leadership and change from the bottom-up rather than top-down. People power initiates the quicker and more effective change across nations.

With an enormous base of supporters and power of grassroots change, it is clear that the spirit behind the Women’s March is thriving and quickly evolving into a transnational platform.

 

Non-discrimination is a Fundamental Human Right

Protests at JFK Terminal 4 on January 28, 2017. Photo credit: Julia Symborski.
Protests at JFK Terminal 4 on January 28, 2017. Photo credit: Julia Symborski.

In light of recent actions from the White House banning immigration of Muslims of certain countries, including permanent residents and visa holders of the U.S., it is imperative that we speak about the right to non-discrimination.

Discrimination is one of the most common and most widespread human rights violations. It is multifaceted and present at all levels of public governance and in civil society. It affects all parts of people’s lives, including politics, education, employment, social and medical services, housing, the penitentiary system, law enforcement, and the administration of justice in general. It can be open and clearly visible (e.g., ingrained in a state’s institution or laws), or it can be implicit and form part of structural violence (e.g., discrimination against people living in poverty). While no general definition of discrimination exists in international law, we usually consider discrimination to mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference which is based on specific characteristics of an individual and which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by all persons, on an equal footing, of all rights or freedoms.

Non-discrimination is thus one of the most fundamental principles of human rights. The very essence of human rights – rights that are inherent to all human beings, inalienable equally applicable to everyone, at all times, everywhere, and in all situations – is embodied in non-discrimination, which gives voice to the equality of all human beings. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights covers non-discrimination in Article 2:

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

Essentially, non-discrimination is the right to be treated equally before the law and in all aspects of life. It guarantees that equal circumstances are dealt with equally in law and practice. However, not all cases of unequal treatment are automatically discrimination. For example, affirmative action on behalf of marginalized groups to establish equality in fact is permissible. A violation of non-discrimination clauses would arise if similar cases are treated differently, if there is no reasonable or objective justification for different treatment, or if the means used are not proportional to the aim sought.

Today, this fundamental principle is embedded in all major international human rights treaties, some of which specifically focus on non-discrimination (e.g., the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination or the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women). There have been efforts to expand non-discrimination beyond the traditionally covered characteristics to include, for example, persons with disabilities or the LBTQ+ community. However, non-discrimination was not always a principle of international law. It was only after WWII, which exhibited the consequences of deliberate, systematic discrimination, persecution, and mass murder of specific groups in the most horrific way, that the principle of non-discrimination fully entered the realm of international politics and law.

Picture of flags and street leading up to the United Nations Palais des Nations in Geneva.
The United Nations Human Rights Bodies are located in the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Source: cometstarmoon, Creative Commons

In the U.S., non-discrimination is included in the 5th Amendment (Due Process Clause) and 14th Amendment, which provides in its Equal Protection clause that states may not “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Nevertheless, we all know that discrimination, racism, and xenophobia have a long history in the U.S. The legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws continue today in institutionalized racism and segregation along socio-economic lines. Similarly, xenophobia and the barring of immigrants based on their country of origin has been common practice. In 1924, Congress enacted laws that banned Asians from immigrating into the United States and established “national origins quota” that favored Western Europeans and discriminated against Eastern Europeans, Asians, and Africans. This practice was abandoned officially only in 1965 with the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which states that no one can be “discriminated against in the issuance of an immigrant visa because of the person’s race, sex, nationality, place of birth or place of residence.” Note that religion is not mentioned in this list and that this law only applies to immigrants, namely people who intend to stay in the U.S. permanently, not temporary visitors such as refugees, students, tourists, or guest workers. This law was designed not only to protect immigrants, but also American citizens who have the right to sponsor their family members or marry a foreigner without discrimination.

President Trump’s executive order, which suspends the entry of all refugees for 120 days, barres Syrian refugees indefinitely, and temporarily freezes immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries, thus most likely not only violates U.S. laws, but also fundamental principles of human rights, esp. the right to non-discrimination. It also stands in opposition of core values of U.S. culture, which includes a history of welcoming immigrants and a philosophy of humanitarianism. While the ruling by a federal judge last night partially blocks the President’s actions, it only prevents the government from deporting those who have already arrived at U.S. airports. It does not allow them to enter the country or discuss the constitutionality of the President’s order.

Victims of war and violence have been victimized yet again.  The heart-wrenching stories and pictures of families torn apart, of students seeing their dreams shattered, and of professionals’ fearing for their livelihoods will probably become a common sight if the implementation of President Tump’s executive order continues. The chaos and outrage worldwide are likely to persist, with grave and long term consequences for the U.S., for its reputation in the world, and the values that it stands for.

It is important in these times that we are well informed about our human rights and those of others. We will update this post as more information becomes available.

Dear Dr. King: An Open Letter

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

Dear Dr. King,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir, I feel we no longer believe in values.

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

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

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

In the midst of conflicting emotions, we rise.

This is our decision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will overcome.

We can overcome.

Yes, we can!

 

Most sincerely,

Ajanet