Critical Race Theory in the United States

This Black History Month was the first one to be celebrated with abundant restrictions. Within the past calendar year, 14 states have made formal restrictions against the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in the classroom. An additional 35 states have moved towards taking action on restricting CRT. The threat of not adhering to these restrictions is real. Numerous instructors from elementary school teachers to professors have and will face repercussions if they hold classroom discussions on systemic racism. These restrictions are nebulous to navigate with the proposed South Carolina law prohibiting teachers from discussing topics that create “ ‘discomfort, guilt or anguish” on the basis of political belief.’ This makes many topics related to the darker side of American history difficult to touch upon.

Two Black children sit at a table beside a Black man looking at worksheets. The children wear yellow attire and the man is in a red-orange shirt.
Two Black children sit at a table beside a Black man looking at worksheets. Source: Yahoo Images

What is Critical Race Theory?

Critical race theory emerged from the mind of Derrick Bell, a Black Harvard Law professor. The theory was the result of courses aimed at understanding the relationship between American policies and race. Bell ultimately resigned from his position due to his view of Harvard’s discriminatory hiring practices. Bell’s resignation and the accompanying disappearance of Harvard Law’s only course on race and the law left many students, especially Black students like Kimberlé Crenshaw, who eventually developed the notion of “intersectionality”, at odds with the administration on the importance of re-instituting a course focused on the topic. The result was a series of campus discussions on said topic by POC scholars that led to the full emergence of CRT. A step beyond the more digestible concepts traditionally anti-racist concepts like civil rights, CRT argued that American history and law were intertwined with a deeply entrenched racism that ultimately led to discriminatory proceedings and policies that have marginalized people of color, especially Black Americans.

Though initially shrouded in the covers of academia, CRT became more mainstream with President Clinton’s nomination of Lani Guinier, American legal scholar and civil rights theorist and the first woman of color to be appointed tenureship at Harvard Law, to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Aggressive Republican campaigns to prevent Guinier’s appointment led to the twisted reduction of the theory to an American history hate campaign framed by race, an idea that still persists today.

A lage crowd of people stands before the Washington Memorial. They are holding signs and densely packed. There are tents and structures that have been placed in the crowd.
A large crowd of people stands before the Washington Memorial. Source: Yahoo Images

Why Is It In The News?

CRT has only made a recent reappearance into greater societal functioning when the summer of 2020 brought anti-racist reading lists to the attention of many including conservative media, courtesy of Christopher Lufo, senior fellow at the libertarian Manhattan Institute. Lufo made known whistleblower information about Seattle’s race training for municipal employees. Though Lufo never used the words critical race theory in his exposé article on blackness vs. whiteness being the same as good vs. evil in the eyes of municipal diversity training and enforcing leaders, the rush of support from people who had experienced and disliked similar diversity trainings encouraged him to write a second article in which he first employed the term “critical race theory.” He argued that CRT trainings were rapidly infecting federal government proceedings and called for President Trump to ban all trainings in federal departments. This call led to an executive order aligning with Rufo, soon challenged in court and later rescinded by President Biden, sparked the raging fire over the fight of CRT and what role it should play in education, namely K-12, and if it should have a role in education.

Now, though many Americans are still confused by what critical race theory is, divisive rhetoric has led to support behind anti-CRT bills. The strange result is a push for restriction on free speech from conservatives and call backs to the 1st Amendment from liberals.

A man in a suit, an older woman, and a taller older woman all stand from left to rght holding signs. The man is dressed formally. They hold signs that (read from left to right), say "We the parents stand up!" and Stop teaching critical racist theory to our kids" and "STEM not CRT" and "Education not indoctrination."
People stand with signs protesting the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools.

Thinking In The Bigger Picture About Education Restrictions

Though ironic, the result is dangerous. Critical race theory has been misconstrued and grossly exaggerated, encouraging the silencing of educators on pertinent topics making up the foundation of American history. Legislative action backing the quelling of potentially uncomfortable topics is a slippery slope that’s bound to slide fast into the realm of dangerously unassuming utopian worlds of literature like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 that upon closer look are dystopian. As such, the filtering of knowledge and state-sanctioned control of educational content consumption flirt dangerously on the lines of government sanctioned erasure of BIPOC history.

In an America that’s growing increasingly diverse in color, creed, origin, etc. it becomes arguably more important to address the darker side of American history. Only by shining a light on past misdeeds can we educate future generations on how to work towards a better tomorrow.

 

What Can I Do?

If you’d like to engage more with critical race theory:

1.    Consider reading more about the topic to further educate yourself on the topic

2.    See what your stance your state is taking when it comes to CRT

3.    Hold a discussion with family and friends on CRT and what it really is

 

Exploring “Don’t Say Gay” Bills

Pride Month will look different this year. Large corporations have begun their rainbow themed merchandise sales and included short LGBTQ+ focused ad campaigns, but the typical Twitter decries are in short supply.

Seven years have passed since the incredible expansion of human rights, specifically LGBTQ+ rights, within the United States with the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. This ruling secured the fundamental right to marry for same-sex couples through the Due Process and the Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. This case brought in waves of support for the LGBTQ+ population and led to greater well-being and life satisfaction for members of the community.

A small crowd of people gather behind parade barriers. One person with a Pride themed bandana holds up the Pride flag.
People behind blocked off space holding up a Pride flag. Source: Yahoo Images

With the recent leaking of Justice Alito’s opinion on an overturning of Roe v. Wade, there is a panic that Obergefell v. Hodges and Lawrence v. Texas, which determined that criminal punishment for acts of sodomy was unconstitutional, are speculated to be under threat to be overturned. While only time will tell whether there is a reversal of these rulings, a more pressing threat to LGBTQ+ rights is spreading like wildfire.

Bill Content

The emergence of “Don’t Say Gay” bills across roughly a dozen states serves as the new hurdle in the endless marathon of a fight for LGBTQ+ rights. Originating in Florida where it was signed into place by Governor Ron DeSantis under the name of “Parental Rights in Education”, this bill stops discussion of gender and sexual orientation in classrooms ranging from kindergarten to the third grade and also penalizes discussion of sexual orientation and gender is not presented in an age-appropriate manner. Violation of the bill by educators or an educational institution is ultimately determined by the parents and is grounds for a lawsuit. Additionally, parental provisions included in bills similar to Florida’s  require parental notification about any health or support offered to their child, giving parents the right to deny services for their children.

Florida’s bill passage was only the beginning. More states like Alabama, Ohio, Louisiana, and more have made the move towards passing and signing similar bills. Politicians like DeSantis claim that bills like these support parents in determining how they introduce their children to the topics of sex and gender, and facilitate “education, not an indoctrination.” States like Alabama have gone even farther in their measures regarding LGBTQ+ youth, specifically trans youth, aiming to limit healthcare access for individuals seeking gender-affirming care. Much of the debate revolves around this kind of political justification of the bills and where America draws the line between LGBTQ+ discrimination and parental and state control of education.

The reality of the situation is one that educators and those from the LGTBQ+ community have elaborated upon time and again as sister bills have emerged from various states. Succinctly put by Arjee Restar, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, to NPR, “The institutionalization of these bills is an overt form of structural transphobia and homophobia, and it goes against all public health evidence in creating a safe and supportive environment for transgender, nonbinary, queer, gay and lesbian youths and teachers to thrive.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signs the "Don't Say Gay" bill. He is seated and surrounded by young children wearing uniforms as well as some adults who stand more in the back.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signs the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Source: Yahoo Images

Potential Bill Effects

LGBTQ+ youths already face relentless stigma and hardship in the process of loving who they are and feeling comfortable sharing that. In fact, according to the Trevor Project, ‘the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning) young people’, estimates that roughly one LGBTQ+ youth attempts suicide every 45 seconds. Additionally, due to the intersectional nature of identity, LGBTQ+ POC youth are speculated to face even higher rates of suicide, mental health conditions, and more. When compounded by critical race theory legislation, these “Don’t Say Gay” bills could negatively effect LGBTQ+ people who face intersectional difficulties in existing.

The “Don’t Say Gay” bills have the potential to exacerbate societal stigma by formally institutionalizing trans- and homophobia by moving towards educational erasure of this population. They also create the potential for familial discourse that could jeopardize a child’s well-being. According to The Trevor Project, the parental provisions section of bills like Florida’s “appear to undermine LGBTQ support in schools and include vague parental notification requirements, which could effectively require teachers to ‘out’ LGBTQ students to their legal guardians without their consent, regardless of whether they are supportive.”

Furthering the concept of family and what role it has to play in youth education, educators bring to light that while gender and sexual orientation may not often be present in forthcoming ways, family certainly is. And with the ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges, more children come from LGBTQ+ families and may have more than one parent of the same gender. The question this situation produces is to what extent this bill really controls education and where do the boundaries lie in state-control over topics that are are fundamental to a child’s lived experience.

An LGBTQ+ family with a small baby walks through some area that is blurred. One person with long, dark hair carries the baby in a front baby carrier, while the other person has short hair and looks on at the other adult with a smile.
An LGBTQ+ family with a small baby. Source: Yahoo Images

What You

While the effects of these bills is yet to be determined, as of right now, lawsuits and court intervention appear to be the only routes to navigate through undoing this legislation. If you feel called to support the plight of the LGBTQ+ population, please consider the following:

1. Donate to LGBTQ+ affirming spaces and support networks like The Trevor Project.

2. Write letters to your state representatives relaying your support of LGBTQ+ visibility in the classroom and urging for either the prevention of a “Don’t Say Gay” bill or the reconsideration of a politician’s support for one.

3. Check in with people in your life who may be affected by such a decision.

The Hijab Row: The Latest on India’s Nationalist Actions

Societal destabilization is a normal part of any dystopian novel. The government cannot come to a consensus, politicians treat countries as puppets, and somehow, an awkward yet powerful adolescent is thrust into the spotlight to save the world. It is slowly dawning on the world that this outlandish twist of fate is now a reality.  

In January 2022, Karnataka, a state on India’s southwestern coastal border, banned hijabs in educational institutions. The epicenter of this issue is at the Government Pre-College University for Girls in the Udipi district of Karnataka, where Muslim students say that when they returned to school this past September, they were threatened to either remove the hijab or be marked absent. The girls were not allowed to attend classes or write their exams in their hijabs. This situation is not only a paramount issue and manifestation of India’s growing nationalist agenda, but also signals a threat to a fundamental right guaranteed in the Indian Constitution: religious freedom. 

Muslim woman wearing a head covering
Muslim woman wearing a head covering Source: Unsplash

Politics 

The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling political party of India, is infamous for its right-wing actions against minorities. The pride of the party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is a devout Hindu and believes that a superior India will only be restored to glory by becoming homogenous, a passion increasingly echoed across India. In recent years, minority alienation in terms of religion, caste, and gender has accelerated. Hindu activist groups in Karnataka believe the hijab ban is essential for social equality and for providing an unbiased classroom for every student to learn. Hindu student activists view the hijab as a symbol of the oppression of Muslim girls and wish to remove them for the sake of religious equality in education. They also compare the hijab to a saffron shawl Hindus often wear in religious ceremonies. It was implied that if hijabs are allowed, then every Hindu should be allowed to wear the saffron shawl to class as well.  

History 

Despite the social equity of this ban, the defense of upholding it is rather weak. This ban forces Muslim girls to choose between their religion, their bodily autonomy, or their education. Who can learn properly when they don’t feel comfortable in their own body? When the hijab is a part of your identity, not wearing it can be a source of ceaseless discomfort and alienation from your body and your perception of yourself.  

17-year-old Aliya Assadi, a karate champion in the city of Udupi, summarized the necessity of the hijab in one statement. Much like other Muslim girls, Assadi derives confidence and is assured by wearing her hijab. Removing it is not an option for her because it is a lifestyle that she pays her respects to. Assadi does not feel oppressed in her hijab but being forced to remove it is embarrassing and humiliating.  

Rows of seats in a university lecture hall
Rows of seats in a university lecture hall Source: Unsplash

The National Congress Party, BJP’s competition, vehemently opposes the hijab ban and stated that it is a violation of religious freedom. The BJP’s response asserted that the hijab is not an essential manifestation or practice of Islam, and therefore, the ban is not a violation of the Constitution. The Quran, the primary religious text in Islam, states that “It is not that if the practice of wearing hijab is not adhered to, those not wearing hijab become the sinners, Islam loses its glory, and it ceases to be a religion.” Based on this one quote, the Karnataka High Court deemed the hijab not essential for religious practice, ruled that the ban was constitutional, and dismissed all petitions made by Muslim girls barred from attending class. However, the hijab has more meaning than a literal interpretation of the Koran. Each of the groups that practice Islam in India and across the world have different cultural values and exhibits diversity in their traditions. Similarly, the hijab has underlying traditional value for each person or group, and in some parts of the world, the hijab is a symbol of resistance.  

Religious freedom, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Banning hijabs imposes on equal access to education and women’s rights because, without comfort and peace of mind in oneself, students cannot learn to their optimal ability. Yet, this problem does not extend to male students. This is the reason for their apparent alienation from the education system, which should be teaching them how to be successful and advocate for their beliefs. The right to education without discrimination on religion or gender is a universal human right—a human right that is being violated.  

Future Implications 

As religious divides deepen between Muslims and Hindus in India, human rights defenders worry that other states will consider enacting a similar ban on hijabs now that the precedent has been set. This is a potential slippery slope that may alienate the Muslim population with additional restrictions and obligations narrowing their sense of self. Already, far-right Hindu groups have claimed that Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi’s home state, is in the process of creating a hijab ban and Uttar Pradesh is next. The majority of both states’ politicians identify as members of the BJP, as well.  

The Muslim girls, however, are not close to surrendering in this fight. They plan to appeal to India’s Supreme Court for a final, unbiased verdict on the case. The young people of India, now the majority age group in the country, are attempting to take India’s future into their own hands. The ramifications of this case, if the Supreme Court were to hear it, will be momentous.  

For years, a Hindu nationalist agenda has decreased the rights and autonomy of minorities of all classes. Often, these moves were underhanded and created through loopholes or loose interpretations of the law—just as the hijab ban was. Once the ban’s constitutionality reaches the Supreme Court, the whole country, including the federal administration, will be put on trial for their actions in the past and the future by India’s minority and majority populations.  

Women in hijabs at a protest with signage "Hijab our Right"
Women in hijabs at a protest with signage “Hijab our Right” Source: Flickr

International Consequences 

Unfortunately, islamophobia and minority discrimination are ideologies that have centuries of history behind them, and it will be challenging to fight this growing movement. When we think of history makers and game changers, it is often about one person with enough strength and bravery to face the world. However, lasting progress is sustained by consistent change and accountability. Anyone can fight and advocate against Islamophobia, and, eventually, a little effort from millions can be amassed into a movement capable of changing society from within.  

Countless organizations, lawyers, and legislators are facing the brunt of standing their ground against harsher political movements, but the public perspective must change first. In India, is important to communicate the despicable nature of Islamophobia online. Residents can report to the police commissioner or the District Magistrate in-person, or they can tag national authorities on social media such as the Ministry of Home, international human rights groups, and UN agencies. Openly support your neighbors or community members and help them file FIRs against Islamophobia acts and follow directives from local anti-Islamophobic organizations. In America at least, people can support anti-Islamophobic legislation and communicate with their government representatives about their discontent and rage over the treatment of their Muslim counterparts. People can also support American Indivisible and Shoulder to Shoulder, organizations that work to dismantle structural islamophobia. Regardless of your location, demonstrating solidarity and opening honest conversations is an imperative initial step to combating Islamophobia. 

How Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill Endangers LGBTQ+ Rights and History in U.S. Education

Florida's Congress
Source: Yahoo Images

A school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students, under the condition that the “Don’t Say Gay” house and senate bills currently in Florida’s state legislature are moved into law. The legislation was moved forward by the Florida State Education Committee last month. Controversy arose over how exactly “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” will be interpreted and the potential for LGBTQ+ history to be erased from public education. The bill, named “Parental Rights in Education”, also encourages parents to sue schools or teachers if such topics are covered in the classroom without the parents’ prior notification and approval. If approved by other state Senate committees and the State House, it will go into effect on July 1 of this year.

Legislation Creates National Controversy 

Formally known as House Bill 1557 and Senate Bill 1834, opposers have begun referring to the legislation as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill due to its attempt to deem sexual orientation and gender identities as subjects too taboo for public schools in America. LGBTQ+ activists have been both shocked and disheartened by the creation of such bill, which directly attacks both school children’s rights and securities. Heather Wilkie of the Zebra Coalition, a Central Florida LGBTQ+ advocacy group, told ABC News, “We have to create a learning environment where they feel safe and healthy, or it’s not an effective learning environment.” She went on to say, “When you have laws like this, that directly attack our kids for who they are, it prevents them from learning. It prevents them from being able to be healthy.” Advocates nationwide, including myself, believe that this legislation teaches children that speaking about gender identity or sexual orientation is shameful and should be hidden, which directly creates discrimination based on such identities. On top of this, LGBTQ+ history is especially important to preserve and expand upon in public education because of the extreme discrimination the community has faced and constant struggles the community deals with today. 

Despite the human rights violations at play, many are still in support of the approval of the “Parental Rights in Education” Bill. Among supporters is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has publicly vocalized his favor for prohibiting any dialogue regarding LGBTQ+ topics in the state’s primary schools. According to this NBC article, Gov. DeSantis stated that it was “entirely inappropriate” for teachers to be having conversations with students about gender identity, citing instances of them telling children, “Don’t worry, don’t pick your gender yet.” He added, “The larger issue with all of this is parents must have a seat at the table when it comes to what’s going on in their schools.” 

White House denounced the Bill 

As a counter to Gov. DeSantis, both the Biden-Harris White House Administration and President Joe Biden have communicated their disapproval of the Florida legislation via their twitter accounts. The White House shared a post stating, “Today, conservative politicians in Florida advanced legislation designed to attack LGBTQI+ kids. Instead of making growing up harder for young people, @POTUS [President of the United States] is focused on keeping schools open and supporting students’ mental health.” President Biden “retweeted” the post to add, “I want every member of the LGBTQI+ community — especially the kids who will be impacted by this hateful bill — to know that you are loved and accepted just as you are. I have your back, and my Administration will continue to fight for the protections and safety you deserve.” 

Other Attempts to erase LGBTQ+ History 

Gay Pride Flags at Protest
Source: Yahoo Images

Unfortunately, anti-LGBTQ+ efforts such as these are not uncommon by American lawmakers. One instance took place in March of 2021, when Tennessee Rep. Bruce Griffey proposed House Bill 800, which would completely erase all topics and people involved in the LGBTQ+ community from the state’s public school curricula. In addition, House Bill 529 was introduced by Rep. Debra Moody, seeking to require parental notification and approval 30 days before any child is taught curriculum regarding sexual orientation or gender identity. Although these bills are stated to have the intention of protecting parents’ rights, erasing any part of history is detrimental to a child’s education. A successful learning environment includes exposure to wide ranges of ideas and beliefs, in addition to learning how to respect beliefs that are initially unfamiliar. 

Ways to Help  

While attempts to delete discussions regarding the LGBTQ+ community in public school systems remain constant, counter efforts also persist, including the American education organization GLSEN, which works to ensure that “every student has the right to a safe, supportive, and LGBTQ-inclusive K-12 education.” Additionally, you can use  this template to send a letter to lawmakers urging them to oppose “Don’t Say Gay Bills” HB 1557 and SB 1837.  

America: The Land of the Hungry

To portray what food security means to those experiencing food insecurity
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a caregiver and child surrounded with sunflowers, standing in a garden. There are words that run along the image describing what food security means to the people in this community.

As an immigrant from India who has become an American citizen, food insecurity is something that I have witnessed a lot in my short lifetime. As a kid, I remember seeing people on the streets of India, both young and old, begging for mere scraps, and felt guilty for not being able to do anything to help. Yet, little did I know that I would come to experience similar food insecurities, but in America, a land supposedly filled with life, liberty, and happiness. It was in America that I first became aware of the realities of being poor, and it was here that I learned how to live off of $20 a week.

Among other things that have come into the limelight due to the pandemic, people are starting to pay more attention to the growing food insecurities in America. The United States is one of the most affluent nations in the entire world, yet it is also home to some of the largest food deserts in the world. This phenomenon, which is an incomprehensible reality in one of the richest nations in the world, has only become worse over the past few years, mainly due to the increasing inflation coupled with stagnant wages, which have only been exacerbated due to the pandemic. Food insecurity has become a reality to many Americans who live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to make ends meet, even with working multiple jobs.

Food Deserts

I included this image to showcase the precooked meals that are frozen and a convenient meal choice for hard working Americans.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting the frozen foods aisle in a grocery store

So, what are food deserts and why should we care about them? Well, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food deserts are areas in which access to healthy food and groceries is limited due to a number of reasons, including distance, individual abilities, and even the location of the neighborhood someone resides in. Distance becomes an issue for those who live far away from stores that sell fresh produce, including those who live in rural areas as well as those who live on the outskirts of urban areas.

Distance can be an even greater challenge if the person or family does not have reliable transportation. This is especially true in rural areas where public transportation does not extend to. Even with public transportation being available, the bus routes in most cities run on scheduled times and have limited hours of service. This means that anyone that works odd hours may not have access to the public transportation system. Furthermore, people that live farther away from grocery stores and that don’t have reliable transportation may have to be able to walk home, meaning that they can only purchase the amount of food they can carry in their hands. This also means that they have to make frequent trips to the grocery store to be able to have their nutritional needs met.

Similarly, individual abilities, such as family income, can greatly impact the food choices a person has access to. Purchasing healthy food is expensive, and if you want something that is free of pesticides or harmful chemicals (organic produce), it’s going to cost you even more money, money that you may not have. Additionally, eating healthy is not always a choice that people with low income have; the choices they are usually presented with are eating something (even if it is unhealthy) or starving for the next few days. You still have to have the energy to go to work and make money to pay your other bills. Roughly half of the American population made less than $35,000 annually, according to the Social Security Administration’s wage reports from 2019. These statistics have only increased as a consequence of the ongoing pandemic.

The neighborhood that a person lives in has a direct impact on their access to fresh food as well. Due to racist policies such as gerrymandering and gentrification, neighborhoods are separated based on the average income of their residents, and this usually means that the poor, (which are made up disproportionately of Black and Brown people), are pushed into underdeveloped areas and away from the up-and-coming neighborhoods in the urban centers. As a result, businesses are more reluctant to open up in impoverished areas, fearing that they won’t make much profit, and this extends to stores that sell fresh produce.

Food Insecurity: Some Hard Facts

I wanted to showcase how prevalent food insecurity is, and how it is concentrated a lot more in the South.
Source: Yahoo Images; A map of the United States from a 2017 analysis of food insecurity in America

If the USDA definition of food deserts is applied in the United States, at least 19 million people live in food deserts. Looking closer to home, in Alabama, as of 2017, over 16% of its residents are facing food insecurities. Even right here in our own backyard, Birmingham Times reported in 2019 that around 69% of Birmingham residents live in food deserts. That is over half of the Birmingham population! As I have learned as recently as this semester during a Social Justice Café event, (a weekly event sponsored by the Institute of Human Rights at UAB that focuses on social justice issues), around 25% of UAB students are cutting meals, close to half of our UAB student population can’t afford to eat healthily, and over 35% of UAB students experience chronic food insecurity! I am one of these students; I am not ashamed to admit it. Despite how much I conserve and try to budget, I still cut meals constantly, I continue to not be able to afford to eat healthily, and I have been experiencing chronic food insecurity since before the pandemic. The reasons behind my struggles are no fault of my own; they are a domino effect of the various systemic failures that continue to plunge millions of hard-working Americans into poverty and as a result, food insecurity.

Eating Healthy: Why it’s a problem especially if you are poor

I wanted to include this image to portray how expensive buying fresh produce can really be.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture showcasing the various produce selections at a grocery store with prices depicted next to each item

If a person has access to $20 for a week’s worth of groceries, spending it all on a couple of fruits and vegetables will not ensure that they can feed themselves and their loved ones for the next few days. What will help them make it through the week are spending on canned goods and processed food items that have a longer shelf life and cut down the time of food preparation. This means buying dollar menu items at fast-food restaurants or shopping at dollar stores for cheap snacks and pre-cooked meals. Low-income families who have experienced food insecurity for generations may not have acquired the knowledge to cook healthy food in a timely manner. They may not have had the resources to learn how to cook, or never had anyone to learn from.

Additionally, eating healthy requires that people cook with fresh, raw ingredients to avoid the preservatives and chemicals used in processed foods for a longer shelf-life. This also means cooking with items that may go to waste if not cooked in a timely manner. Most Americans struggling with food insecurity work low-income jobs, sometimes multiple jobs at a time, and the last thing they want to do is go home after a hard day of work and prepare meals for their family. Fast food is an easy, convenient alternative, and it is this convenience that has made them successful despite the unhealthy, low-nutritious food they sell.

Furthermore, this consumption of unhealthy foods with little nutritional value leads to chronic health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease. Even eating fruits and vegetables that have been grown with the use of pesticides and herbicides has been proven to expose those consuming them to toxic chemicals known to cause cancer. Therefore, to truly enjoy healthy produce, people have to purchase organic foods, which doubles the costs of groceries. Additionally, having adequate access to healthcare is another major challenge for those that live below the poverty line, and generally targets households that are already marginalized. These disparities have only been exacerbated due to the pandemic. As a consequence of the way that American healthcare is set up, most people living in poverty tend to avoid going to the doctor unless they absolutely have to, which further perpetuates the cycle of reactionary medical care rather than a precautionary one. Food insecurity is also surrounded by stigmatization, blaming the starving people for failing to put food on the table for themselves and their families instead of focusing on why this trend is common amongst almost half of the country’s hard-working citizens.

Non-Government Food Aid and Government Food Aid

I included this image to bring attention to the existence of food pantries and their part in combatting food insecurity
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture outside of a food pantry in Baltimore

Well, what about the government? Doesn’t it help those that are facing food insecurities? Government food aid comes in the form of SNAP/EBT benefits, commonly known as “food stamps,” and while it has helped many people struggling with food insecurity, this program has a lot of issues with it (too many to discuss in this blog). For today, however, let’s just examine some of the eligibility requirements to even qualify for food assistance. For one, Congress sets a threshold, requiring that people applying for the program must prove to the government that their income and expenses together show that they are living over 100% below the poverty line.

Furthermore, states can also add additional requirements such as passing a drug test or passing a background check. Some states disqualify applicants that have a criminal history from receiving assistance. If you’ve read my previous blogs about the realities of re-entering society after being imprisoned, you know why this is problematic.

Additionally, if the applicant is an immigrant, legal or illegal, qualifying for food assistance is almost impossible. Those who think that citizenship should be a requirement for food assistance don’t understand what human rights are. Food is a necessary resource that ALL humans have to have, and any person struggling to eat deserves to be helped, regardless of their citizenship status. There is also a requirement that people applying for assistance should have a job working at least 20 hours a week. This means that if you are unemployed, you cannot qualify for food assistance. That is exactly when you need the most help when you have no income or are transitioning from one job to another. On top of all these extensive eligibility requirements, if you are on strike, expressing your right to protest, something secured to you by the Constitution of the United States of America, you will not be able to qualify for food assistance. These conditions that require the people struggling with poverty to prove they are poor enough to receive assistance are demeaning, insulting, and undignifying to those who require the aid.

There are local non-profit groups and state institutions that provide food banks and food pantries where people can go to access food, but these places are usually located in more populated areas, meaning that people who live in rural areas or on the outskirts of cities face additional struggles accessing these food aid institutions. Transportation again becomes an issue for people living far from food banks and further limits their accessibility. Additionally, due to the stigma that surrounds food insecurity, people are made to feel guilty about their situation, and as a result, many avoid going to the food banks altogether.

How COVID has Made Food Insecurity Worse

The recent pandemic has changed many aspects of day-to-day life for people around the world. It has intensified the struggles of many Americans who were barely making it through life before the virus took hold. This same trend holds true when analyzing the pandemic’s impact on people experiencing food insecurity in America. The number of people struggling to feed themselves and their families has increased from 19 million in 2017 to over 50 million people in 2020. This is understandable, as many Americans lost their jobs during the shutdown of the economy, and many did not qualify for unemployment benefits.

Furthermore, due to the unhealthy nature of cheap foods, many Americans are experiencing malnutrition, dealing with obesity, diabetes, and heart problems, among other health issues. These health conditions have made them more vulnerable to catching the virus, and without an income, paying for healthcare becomes a major issue. Additionally, health insurance in America is tied to employment, and many Americans lost their jobs due to the economic shutdown, and as a result, also lost their health insurance coverage. All these factors have collectively worsened the lives of the poor and marginalized communities, adding to the growing financial instability and food insecurities these families face.

What Can We Do About It?

I decided to include this image to showcase how community gardens can help in the fight against food insecurity
Source: Yahoo Images; A man standing with a shovel inside of a community garden filled with growing vegetables and plants.

There are a lot of systemic issues to unpack that either leads to or exacerbates food insecurities. These issues need to be addressed through public policies that would help those struggling to eat by putting more money back into their pockets. These measures include pressuring our local policymakers to support legislation that would increase wages, lower eligibility requirements to access federal food aid, make healthy food more affordable and accessible, provide better public transportation, make healthcare affordable and accessible, and regulate businesses that exploit people to meet profit margins. All these things could help destigmatize food insecurity in our society and empower people to help themselves.

While food insecurity is a systemic issue that needs greater attention from our policymakers, there are still things that we can do ourselves. First, for those who are experiencing food insecurity here on campus, a resource called Blazer Kitchen is available for students and staff members, and their families to take advantage of. Blazer Kitchen is an onsite food pantry for those experiencing food insecurity. I’ve used Blazer Kitchen before, and while it is still a newly growing program, I have been grateful to have this resource at hand.

Second, for those who want to help reduce food waste, those who wish to shop at home, or those that have transportation limitations, Imperfect Foods is an online delivery service that has partnered with Feeding America (an organization aimed at ending food insecurity) to find a sustainable way to cut down food waste while simultaneously providing access to healthy foods for people who are food insecure. So much food gets wasted due to issues of over-harvested crops, changes in packaging, or even due to cosmetic imperfections that don’t always pass the scrutiny of the retail buyers. Instead of letting all this food go to waste, imperfect foods, and other such companies, strive to make use of these goods. This service also addresses the issue of transportation by having these imperfect goods delivered to your house.

Finally, only people who live on properties with land can have access to personal produce gardens right now. Sponsoring local community gardens around the country can help educate people on how to grow their own food, can provide jobs for people to maintain these gardens, and provide access to healthy food options within walking distance. Localized community gardens can also decrease the carbon footprint left behind by massive corporate grocery stores that have to transport goods across states and can cut down on food waste as well. Also, share your experiences with food insecurity; let others know that you are experiencing it too. This helps start the process of destigmatizing this issue while educating others about the realities and complexities tied into your experiences. If you have the means to, donate to food banks and other such nonprofit organizations that provide help for those who desperately need it. Even if you never get to meet the people you are helping, know that they still greatly appreciate it. I know I do.

Injustice in the Justice System: Disability, Schools, and Incarceration

The image depicts rows of wooden benches in a well-lit classroom.
The image depicts a school classroom. The experience of individuals with disability in schools often contributes to their disproportionate incarceration. Source: Unsplash

Freddie Gray was killed as he was being transported in a police vehicle because the police did not take appropriate safety measures. Gray’s encounter with the police undoubtedly involved racial biases held by the officers due to their perceptions of African American men. However, another aspect of Gray’s identity, which lead to him being disproportionately impacted long before his encounter with the police, played a role in his untimely demise at the hands of an unfair system. Gray had a developmental disability as a result of growing up in a house with lead paint, which meant he was unable to understand multi-step instructions. This, however, was not identified early enough for Gray to receive accommodations in school. Due to this lack of support, Gray had a difficult time in school, ultimately leading to suspensions and dropping out of high school. Since then, Gray came in contact with the criminal justice system multiple times. Gray’s story displays the complex, intersectional impact of various factors that lead to an individual being disadvantaged by our society, including race, socio-economic status, and disability. Moreover, it displays how lack of appropriate identification and accommodation for students with disabilities increases their likelihood of entering the school-to-prison pipeline.

My previous post investigated accessibility of the criminal justice system to people with disabilities. This article will focus on the factors that lead to individuals with disabilities being incarcerated at a disproportionate rate, with a special focus on individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This disproportionately impacts children and individuals with developmental disabilities, both through the school-to-prison pipeline and through either exploiting or ignoring them in proceedings.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline for Individuals with Disabilities

It has been shown that dropping out of high school increases the likelihood of a child encountering the criminal justice system. This tendency is reflected in the prison and jail population as well. A paper by Respect Ability on disability and criminal justice reform reported that high school completion rates amongst incarcerated individuals is low – two-thirds of people in state prisons and seven out of ten people in jail have not completed high school. The literacy rates of incarcerated individuals also demonstrate the connection between education and incarceration. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy Survey, carried out by the U.S. Department of Education in 2003, reported that prison inmates had lower literacy rates than their counterparts that have not been incarcerated. While disparities found in the survey have decreased since the 1990’s, there were significant differences in literacy.

This relation between educational attainment and incarceration means that people with disabilities, who have a lower high school graduation rate than their peers who are not disabled, are at disproportionate risk of being incarcerated. While 84.6% of individuals without disability graduate high school in 2019, only 67.1% of students with disabilities graduate high school. The cause of this may be three-fold. Individuals with disabilities are not always provided accommodations to allow them flourish in the classroom. While 1 in 5 children differ in their learning abilities, with conditions like dyslexia or ADHD, only 1 in 16 children have IEPs, which are plans to provide accommodations and supplemental instruction. They also do not always receive a diagnosis that allows them to get accommodations in classes. This disproportionately impacts girls with developmental disabilities. For example, autism spectrum disorder is less likely to be identified in women than in men due to lack of knowledge about differences in presentation in males and females. This issue intersects with race as well – individuals in minority communities may find it particularly difficult to get a diagnosis. Moreover, people with disability are twice as likely to receive an out of school suspension as people without disabilities, and students who are suspended are more likely to drop out of school. Male African American and Latino students with disabilities have the highest suspension rates, once again showing how intersectionality leads to a more severe worsening of outcomes.

The image shows coiled, barbed wire on top of metal fences found in prisons. There is a partly cloudy sky in the background.
“Prison security system” by x1klima is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

People with Intellectual and Developmental Disorders

People with intellectual and developmental disorders (IDD) are further disadvantaged in the criminal justice system due to multiple reasons, often leading to the person with the disability being ignored or coerced in proceedings. One of the foundational issues is that people with intellectual and developmental disorders are not appropriately identified. The determination of whether an individual has an IDD varies by state, with a judge making the decision in some states and a jury in others. One commonality, however, is that the evaluators chosen to assess the status of developmental or intellectual disability are often not qualified to do so. They lack a nuanced understanding of the conditions they are to assess – for example, they are not aware that people with IDD sometimes deny their disability. In the Hall v. Florida case, the supreme court made the important ruling that individuals cannot be diagnosed solely based on the results of an IQ test, but more needs to be done to ensure IDD is accurately identified. False stereotypes about the abilities of individuals with disabilities systematized through unqualified evaluators often means people with disabilities do not receive the full protections offered to them by the law.

However, an accurate determination alone is insufficient to guarantee that the rights of people with IDD are upheld in the criminal justice system. During the judicial proceedings, individuals with IDD may be coerced or left out completely, both of which are problematic. Individuals with IDD may be forced or manipulated into making false admissions of guilt, at times due to their desire to please the questioner. Individuals with IDD may also waive their rights, such as when the Miranda warnings are read out by police officers, without fully understanding their privileges because the information was not presented in a comprehensible manner. The inappropriate assessment discussed in the previous paragraph also applies to deeming individuals with IDD competent to stand trial when they do not have an understanding of the proceedings. This offers further opportunities for individuals with IDD to be exploited. On the other hand, individuals with disabilities are left out of proceedings when they are capable of participating and when their testimonial is crucial. The silencing of competent individuals with disabilities is particularly detrimental when they are the victims of crime, who are seeking justice.

People with IDD are denied opportunities for redress due to stereotyped views of their disability, leading to higher likelihood of incarceration. They are also denied opportunities to correct the behaviors that lead to incarceration because they are not allowed alternatives to incarceration, such as rehabilitation. Once incarcerated, individuals with IDD cannot make use of the same opportunities to reduce their sentencing, as the process for doing so is not communicated in an understandable way. The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities advocates for the full participation of individuals with IDD in proceedings, as well as the provision of accommodations that allows them to do so. They also recommend that an advocate specialized in disability be present at all times, in addition to the person’s lawyer, to bring a better understanding of the condition to the proceedings and ensure that the rights of the individual with IDD are upheld.

Fortunately, advocates are working to secure the rights of people with disabilities and ensure fair treatment in the judicial system. The Alabama Disability Advocates Program is one of 57 federally mandates protection and advocacy (P&A) programs which provide legal services and representation for people with disabilities. However, systemic efforts need to be taken to correct currently existing, crucial shortcomings like inadequate methods of identifying disability in courtrooms and schools. Accurate identification of disability and provision of accommodations is crucial in a society where schools are not doing enough to set all students up for success and the criminal justice system does not enforce the protections that people with IDD are entitled to. As mentioned in my previous article on the criminal justice system, it is possible, and necessary, for all of us to create change in this space by contacting local legislators and making our priorities as constituents clear to those who represent us.

 

 

 

Diversity Resistance in Education – Event Recap

shadows of people of different races, religions, etc.
Source: Yahoo Images

In recent news, the subject of discussing racism and race within schools has become a controversial topic. On Wednesday, November 10th, the Institute for Human Rights at UAB welcomed Dr. Michelle Allen, UAB Diversity Education Director. Dr. Allen has a research background in Critical Theory, Queer Studies, and Narrative Inquiry. The seminar was moderated by Dr. Courtney Andrews, Researcher at the Institute for Human Rights (IHR) and Adjunct Professor of Anthropology. Throughout the discussion, Dr. Allen provided an overview of critical theory, discussed the place of the theory, and discussed race within secondary education.

Origins of Critical Race Theory

Dr. Allen began the conversation by defining critical theory and its use as a lens. Dr. Allen asserts critical race theory is based within legal studies. Critical Race Theory began in the legal academy in the 1970s and grew from the 1980s to the 1990s. Critical race theorists suggest that since race is embedded within our society, it is based within the laws that regulate the society. The purpose of the theory is to challenge neutrality and rationality in the judicial sphere. Thus, based upon this definition of the theory, racism is presented as systemic, and Dr. Allen emphasizes how each racial group can treat critical race theory as a “launching pad” for understanding their marginalization within society.

The Tenants of Critical Race Theory

From there, critical race theory was defined by five tenants: “race is a social construct, racism is a normal feature of society, lived experiences as scholarship, racism is codified in laws, and centering intersectionality.” Dr. Allen elaborates that race is not defined through biological means but rather through society creating meaning behind race as a construct. Furthermore, due to race being a social construct, it is a systematic issue that is produced from society and creates inequalities involving those minority groups. From these inequalities, Dr. Allen emphasizes how the lived experience of a person, as they experience racism, can serve as a possibility model to greater comprehend the lived experience of that entire minority group. Furthermore, how these individuals experience the world with all their intersecting identities from gender to sexuality to race.

Intersectionality

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality,” which is the idea of “colluding identities coming together to paint a picture or create a unique lived experience,” as Dr. Allen defines. She further expands upon the significance of intersecting identities or a “colluding web of oppression” with an interesting case of General Motors. In the 1960s, the company had a policy that the people most recently hired would be laid off in situations of economic hardship. The policy was established to support layoffs during the 1970s. The most recently hired group consisted of black women, thus they were the most fired group. Five of these women filed a lawsuit against General Motors for discrimination, but the issue began with determining which identity the discrimination was based on. The lawyers could not prove that there was discrimination based on both being women and being black. Due to the isolation of gender and race, General Motors was able to prove the lack of discriminating due to hiring black people and women in general. Ultimately, this case displays the necessity of shifting the conversation to be inclusive and critical of the merging of various identities especially when we exist in an emerging global society.

Resistance to Critical Race Theory

Despite the applicability of critical race theory, the question that is often raised regarding the theory is if it should be taught within secondary schools. One participant went further and asked Dr. Allen “why is there resistance towards the theory being taught within schools?” Dr. Andrews suggested that white people often face difficulty in recognizing their own power and the shift in power once they realize their privilege in society. They remain complacent in attempting to understand racism systematically because, on an individual level, they feel they are not racist or discriminatory. Dr. Allen added on that within America, white people often have the luxury to view themselves as individuals compared to other minority groups who must identify with their racial group. Thus, white people do not feel that critical race theory is necessary to be absolved from a group-based identity.

The conversation shifted to address another question raised of whether people resist critical race theory due to ignorance or lack of understanding. Dr. Allen answers there is a culture of anti-intellectualism in which the general population prefers a non-expert over a more qualified person, even in areas of government. When Dr. Allen teaches her diversity courses, people often question the terms she presents, such as “cisgender,” and do not understand or recognize the importance of academia and scholarship in developing these new ideas or terms. Another participant argued that there is not a lack of understanding critical race theory, but that people simply do not want to engage in the conversation. They might not want their children to be taught that white people as a group have historically oppressed people of color. There is a misconception in America that discussing racism will create more racism, but people fail to comprehend that racism is implicitly taught by people around them saying or doing terrible things, so teaching that it exists and why it is wrong is important to prevent it from becoming a belief and practice in our children. In other countries where traumatic events of bigotry occurred like in Germany with Holocaust or South Africa with Apartheid, the events are explicitly taught and discussed to effectively address the ramifications of such tragic events. In the U.S., people often take the discussion of racism personally and do not recognize that it is a societal and systemic issue.

In discussing the role of critical race theory in schools, Dr. Allen emphasizes how the theory should not be solely taught as a lesson plan for the week, but rather be infused within the subject that is being taught. A participant who is a teacher raised a concern and asked Dr. Allen how to properly implement critical race theory into educational curriculum. Dr. Allen responded that it is important to acknowledge the history of certain forms of knowledge. For example, when discussing gynecological knowledge, it can be explained that this information was gained through the exploitation of black women through unethical scientific experimentation by people like Dr. Marion Sims and others. The point is not necessarily to teach critical race theory – a high level social theory – to high school students, but to teach them a true and accurate history of the systemic exploitation, discrimination, and marginalization of People of Color in American history as well as their contributions to our society. In this way, it is possible to de-center whiteness and white people as the dominant force driving our history and our future.

Thank you, Dr. Allen and Dr. Andrews and thank you everyone who participated in this eye-opening discussion.

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

 

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

Sex Education in the United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Current State of Sex Education in Alabama 

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

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

Ways to Get Involved

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

The Texas Social Worker’s Code

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

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

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

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

The Human Rights Connection 

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

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

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

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

 The Purpose of Social Work: Helping Vulnerable Populations 

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

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

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

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

Not Fair, Still Lovely: The Perpetuating Toxicity of Colorism

advertisement for a skin whitening cream
Source: Adam Jones

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

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

Colorism in Indian Society

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

The Origins of Colorism

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

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

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

Difference between racism and colorism

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

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

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

What can I do?

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