A Human Rights Perspective on the Opioid Crisis in America

Pills
Pills. Source: Jamie. Creative Commons.

The opioid crisis in the United States is not something I often hear about in the news nowadays. Or maybe it is so often in the news that the title fades into the background amongst the news about politics. However, the opioid epidemic affects millions of people across the United States, and it has affected them for years. Human rights concerns connected to the epidemic have begun to grow in recent years as controversies regarding the United States health care system and law enforcement systems have come to light.

The crisis began with the expansion of opioids for medical purposes in the 1990s. The initial goal with opioids was to treat pain but the drugs soon became exploited by pharmaceutical companies eager to increase their profit revenue [1]. Before the addictive and harmful properties of opioids became known both to the public and to healthcare professionals, prescriptions for opioid medications increased rapidly across the country.

The introduction of extended-release oxycodone in 1996 along with claims by the manufacturers that it was less addictive and effective for up to 12 hours was a major catalyst for the epidemic. There are three described waves of opioid overdose deaths in the United States. The first wave began with an increase in the prescription of opioids, increasing since at least 1999. The second wave included overdose deaths involving heroin, the increase beginning in 2010. The third wave included an increase in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids such as illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF) in 2013.

Hospital
Hospital. Source: Marissa Anderson. Creative Commons.

The first reaction to the opioid crisis was to limit the number of prescriptions in the market. However, this drove many to use the less expensive and more accessible street heroin. Cheaper and stronger opioids kept reappearing on the market, leading to an accelerated rate of fatal overdoses. Most addictions start with diverted supplies instead of among doctors’ patients. This was the case with heroin, which causes 4% of those who were using prescription opioids to switch to heroin. While 4% seems like a small percentage, 4% of the large number of people taking opioid pills is actually very large and enough to exacerbate the crisis [2]. In 2017, the United States Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency. Over 130 people die every day from opioid-related overdoses and 10.3 million people in the United States misused prescription opioids in 2018. In 2017, more than 70,200 people died from drug overdoses. Of those 70,200, around 68% involved opioids.

White Americans make up roughly 80 percent of opioid overdose victims. The attention of the coverage of the opioid crisis has primarily centered on white Americans, pushing aside the attention on minorities affected by the crisis. Minorities made up 20 percent of opioid related deaths in July of 2019, but that number is growing. The crisis has highlighted the racial disparities in the US healthcare system as many experts believe that the number of opioid related deaths in minority populations would be greater if minorities had access to the same level of health care as white Americans. It is known that people of color have had a significant lack of access to the American healthcare system throughout history and throughout the recent years. This disparity lowers the probability that non-whites in American would be prescribed opioids and thus lowers the chance that the population would suffer fatal overdoses. Despite the low death rates due to the exclusions within the health care system, the abuse of opioids is still abundant in communities of color. Scientists have witnessed a doubling of overdose death rates among African Americans, a factor that is being overshadowed by the media and societal focus on the death rates of whites.

Police
Police Officer. Source: G20 Voice. Creative Commons.

The law enforcement system has failed minorities in the opioid crisis as well. The War on Drugs, an attempt at cracking down on the opioid epidemic, has disproportionately affected African American communities across the United States. Studies have shown that law enforcement officials target black communities for drug violations significantly more than they target white communities. While drug use is similar between white communities and black communities, members of the black community are 13 times more likely to be arrested for buying and using drugs. In 2013, black and Hispanic populations represented 29 percent of the entire United States population. Despite this, the number of black and Hispanic prisoners arrested for drug related charges dominated that of whites. Not only is this true, but the United States Sentencing Commission also released a report stating that black prisoners receive longer sentences than white prisoners, despite both groups being convicted of similar weighted crimes.

The opioid crisis has hurt millions of people and families across the United States, one of the most diverse countries in the world. Despite this, the national attention has primarily focused on how the crisis has affected the white population. It is important to focus not only on how the opioid crisis has affected minorities, but also how the health care and law enforcement systems have responded to the opioid crisis in minority groups. The disparities within these systems must be fixed in order to provide an equal treatment of all groups.

[1] The Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Opioid Crisis in America. 2017.

[2] The Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Opioid Crisis in America. 2017.

Saudi Arabia Human Rights Violations: Freedom of Religion and Speech

I recently wrote a blog post commending Saudi Arabia on advancements made with women’s rights. However, to follow up, I think it is important to note what Saudi Arabia still gets wrong in terms of human rights. While there are many ongoing human rights violations, the following discourse will focus specifically on the oppression of religious minorities, namely Shia Muslims, and the lack of freedom of speech. I am writing this post not to join the voices that criticize for the sake of criticizing, but rather because I think it is important for Muslims to be vocal about their expectations for countries that claim to be representing Islam.

An image showing Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia protesting the bombing of one of their mosques.
Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia protesting after one of their mosques has been attacked. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Shia Muslims

Shia Muslims are a minority sect in Islam, making up around 10 percent of all Muslims. Because of this, they are often subject to oppression and discrimination by Sunni Muslims. Despite the fact that harmful rhetoric against Shia Muslims exists in most, if not all, Sunni-majority countries, it is especially disturbing in Saudi Arabia considering that the hatred and intolerance towards Shia Muslims has become institutionalized. For example, the Saudi Arabian government has allowed officials and religious scholars to belittle Shia Muslims and their beliefs. This is not only concerning because of the harmful language used, but also because these officials and scholars have influence over both the government and the general public, and thus play significant roles in shaping policy and public opinion. One government official known for spreading hateful rhetoric about Shia Muslims was Former Grand Mufti Abdel Aziz bin Baz, who was quoted saying, “The Shia are Muslims and our brothers? Whoever says this is ignorant, ignorant about rejectionists for their evil is great.” This is one example of many, but it illustrates the hateful rhetoric that Shia Muslims are often victims of.

The institutionalization of hatred against Shia Muslims is most clear in the Saudi Arabian justice and education systems. The justice system is highly discriminatory against Shia Muslims, namely in the criminalization of their religious practices and beliefs. Further, the government has made it illegal to build Shia mosques outside of Shia-majority cities. The education system is perhaps the worst of all, though, because it perpetuates the cycle of discrimination against Shia Muslims by indoctrinating young Saudi children with anti-Shia sentiments. For example, textbooks used in elementary and middle schools stigmatize Shia beliefs and practices and go as far as to claim that Shia Muslims are disbelievers, suggesting that Shia should not be considered Muslims. While criticizing their beliefs and practices is problematic in and of itself, saying that Shia are not Muslims is impermissible, both ethically and religiously, and only serves to cause further hatred and intolerance.

An image showing a protest sign advocating for the release of an imprisoned female Saudi Arabian activist.
A protest sign advocating for both freedom of speech and the release of Israa al-Ghomgham, an imprisoned female Saudi Arabian activist. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Freedom of Speech

The most blatant example of a human rights violation against the people of Saudi Arabia is the lack of freedom of speech, which has especially detrimental ramifications for individuals advocating for human rights. For example, in 2018, several women’s rights activists were arrested and charged with treason solely for their work in activism. This came at the same time that Prince Mohammed bin Salman had lifted the ban on women driving, and ironically, many of the women who were arrested had been advocating for women’s right to drive. Thus, while lifting the ban was a positive move forward, the imprisonment of these women makes the intentions behind Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to lift the ban confusing; it is difficult to deduce whether Prince Mohammed bin Salman is truly concerned with women’s rights, or if this was a step taken to make Saudi Arabia appear that it is being reformed and moving towards modernization. His intentions can be further called into question considering the extent to which these women’s rights have been violated; not only were these women arrested and detained, but it is known that they were also electrically shocked and whipped during interrogations, which amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment. To this day, some of these women are still imprisoned, unlikely to be released without international intervention. However, it is important to note that this was not an isolated event. While Saudi Arabia has always used arrests and detentions to deal with dissidents, the number of detentions significantly increased after Prince Mohammed bin Salman took power in 2017; over 60 individuals identified as dissidents have been arrested and held.

Muslims around the world strongly oppose Islamophobia and the oppression of Muslims, which is a great thing. However, Muslims tend to be silent about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, which is troubling. While many Muslims do call out these violations, many others either turn a blind eye, or even worse, find justifications for these violations. However, this is a double standard; if Muslims around the world truly care about their own rights, it follows that they must care about the rights of all of those who are oppressed, especially when Muslim majority countries are responsible for causing this oppression.

Water Insecurity in the United States

Dirty water spilling our of a glass jug
Dirty water spilling out of a large glass carboy on its side. Source: Ildar Sagdejev, creative commons.

Access to clean water and sanitation is rarely something we have to worry about here in the United States; it comes out of faucets and water fountains at a seemingly endless supply. However, in many parts of the world—including some areas of the United States—access to clean water and sanitation is a major issue and can affect more than just people’s physical health.

In 2010, the UN recognized access to safe water and sanitation as a human right, and the issue was included among the UN’s sustainable development goals in 2015. With the UN’s focus on clean water access, many developing countries have started making efforts to increase access. However, many developed countries, like the United States, have neglected to develop their rural areas, which leaves a significant portion of their population without clean water for drinking and sanitation purposes. In fact, their situations can be similar to situations in developing countries.

Many Americans would be surprised to know that in more rural areas, it’s often not uncommon for people to go without a sophisticated sewer and water system because the infrastructure has not yet been built. In Lowndes county in Alabama, a largely rural and agricultural area, less than one fifth of the population has a safe way to dispose of their sewage waste. This issue can cause the sewage to back up into their systems or to overflow to their backyards. Neither of these outcomes are ideal for promoting health.

The people that are mainly affected by water insecurity and a lack of clean water in the United States are those that are already disadvantaged; the higher your income, the more likely it is you will have complete and adequate plumbing. This leaves those that live in lower socioeconomic areas with lower performing schools and fewer resources more likely to experience issues like inadequate plumbing and lead-contaminated water.

The systems that have the most problems are the ones that serve rural communities. When a city has a sewer issue, more people are paying for the water, so the extra cost is distributed more widely. In a rural community, there are less people to distribute the cost across, so it’s harder to come by the money to update the sewer systems. Because smaller communities have a harder time paying for necessary repairs and upgrades, the residents in these areas have to choose between drinking contaminated water or paying for bottled water.

Another issue that arises is when communities have a city water system but lack the appropriate people to run it. Some areas have no one to run their systems, while other rural sewer systems are operated by volunteers. In Kanawha Falls, West Virginia, a resident was elected to clean the water, but failed to test and report the water, and the state threatened to arrest him. Scotts Mills, Oregon cannot afford to hire workers for the water system, so they rely on volunteers and community reports of smells to know when work needs to be done.

Because some systems don’t have the staff and infrastructure to test regularly, many don’t realize their water is contaminated until they experience an adverse health outcome. For example, in Kanawha Falls, cited 2 thousand times over ten years for not testing and reporting water quality, a man who had skull surgery got two infections from the contaminated water. He now has to keep his head covered when he showers.

These problems aren’t exclusively in rural areas; lower-income areas—typically those in minority communities—also experience these problems. The most famous example is the lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, where 62.6% of the population is a racial or ethnic minority. At one point, the lead levels—caused by improperly treated water corroding pipes—were almost three times past being considered hazardous waste. While the lead contamination was discovered in 2015, Flint is still dealing with these issues today. The lead’s effect on the community of Flint was enormous: children came down with a rash and mysterious illness; experts believe that lead was responsible for 198 to 276 fetal deaths; and twice as many children were diagnosed with lead-poisoned blood than before.

Flint is not the only area that has experienced issues like this, and Flint is not the only community at risk. Using income information and housing age, Vox and the Washington State Department of Health created a map to show what areas are more susceptible to lead poisoning. They also take the potential of lead paint into account, but the map shows that the at-risk areas are mainly cities, especially those that used to be industrial areas. Looking at the cities I know—Birmingham and Chattanooga—I can tell the areas at the highest risk are those that have a large minority population.

Water insecurity affects people’s mental health as well. Those that have less access to clean water experience more emotional distress. One thing many people, especially in urban areas, count on is easy access to water from their taps. However, when that easy access turns out to be harmful, like it is in Flint, anxiety and worry can rise. Parents that unknowingly gave their children contaminated water may feel guilt even though they didn’t intentionally give their children toxic water. In Flint specifically, levels of fear and anxiety were at an all-time high following the news of the contamination. In 2016, there were reports of parents coming to the ER with water-related breakdowns; many were distressed over the health of their children.

In areas where there’s a lack of water altogether, people can face similar issues. A lack of access to water—whether it be a loss of water through drought or a lack of water to begin with—has been connected to decreased mental health. Those in areas that are water insecure may experience anxiety, water-related emotional distress, and insomnia, among other symptoms. Additionally, the effects of dehydration play a role in mental health. Dehydration has been linked to increased stress, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Those facing water insecurity are more likely to become dehydrated, so these symptoms should not be taken likely.

Water insecurity and lack of clean water access disproportionately affect minorities and rural populations. This means these already disadvantaged groups are more likely to experience the adverse effects. Clean water access is considered a human right, but even here in the United States there are people suffering from a lack of clean water.

A Seat at the Table: Learning the True Meaning of Representation at COSP12

Image showing a sculpture of a globe outside the United Nations building in New York.
Globe outside the United Nations. Photo by Samih Eloubeidi.

A few months ago, I was sent to the United Nations as an Official Rapporteur to the 12th Session of the Conference of State Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (COSP). The theme of this year’s COSP was implementing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities (PWD) in society. While at the conference, I attended several side events that highlighted how different NGOs, companies, and organizations have made efforts to include PWD in all facets of society. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to transcribe the General Debate and Round Table Three Discussion of the General Assembly, both of which focused specifically on the inclusion of PWD in society through participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure, and sport. For this blog post, though, I want to focus on two of the side events I attended, because I believe that the personal lessons they taught me were the most valuable lessons I learned at the conference.

The first side event I attended detailed how artificial intelligence (AI) and other technology can be used to increase the inclusion, participation, and independence of PWD. Many of the panelists noted that while AI can help PWD, it can also be an obstacle that further perpetuates the societal exclusion of PWD. In response to this point, Megan Lowery, the representative for Microsoft, highlighted the importance of including PWD in the creation and dissemination of technology, noting that their input is indispensable for ensuring that the AI is in fact facilitating PWD’s inclusion and participation. As a testament to this, Alejandro Moledo from the European Disability Forum (EDF) detailed “Plug and Pray?”, a report created by the EDF to provide a perspective from PWD on emerging technologies. The report highlights the concerns and risks PWD have about these technologies and provides partial recommendations to policy makers and AI creators.

The second side event I attended focused on deinstitutionalization in the Arab region to support the inclusion and independence of PWD. As a Middle Easterner myself, I was particularly excited about this panel and the insights it would provide. Her Excellency Haifa Abu Ghazaleh and Her Excellency Ghada Wali both detailed that institutions should be made to provide health care, educational opportunities, and other resources for PWD rather than just being institutions where PWD are placed. In this way, PWD would have systems of support that would allow them to live independently while also giving them access to opportunities that could increase their inclusion in society. The discussion was opened to the panelists, all of whom were PWD; Mr. Ibrahim Abdullah, Mr. Mohammed Lotfy, and Mr. Muhannad Alazzeh. Mr. Abdullah stated that he is supportive of deinstitutionalization due to the fact that institutions isolate children with disabilities from their communities, while both Mr. Lotfy and Mr. Alazzeh supported transforming the institutions into support systems for PWD.

While these events were incredibly informative, it is not the information alone that has stuck with me. As I watched the panelists and speakers share their thoughts, the phrase, “a seat at the table”, continuously came to mind; the panelists and speakers at both side events I detailed were PWD discussing issues that PWD face. To me, this is what true representation is supposed to look like. When dealing with issues pertaining to any minority group, the people from that minority group should be responsible for leading the discourse. It is upsetting to see, then, that many people try to lead discourse when the discourse is not theirs to lead. Being well versed on the plight and issues that other minority groups face does not and should not make allies feel as though we can adequately address these issues. It is true that all minorities face struggle, but that is the extent of the commonality between us; every minority faces struggles differently, and we cannot assume that our own struggles are similar to, or even on the same level as, the struggles others face. After being at the conference, I realized that sometimes I too try to be a voice for others. However, I understand now that when it comes to discourse pertaining to other minorities, my voice is solely meant to be used to support, rather than to supplant, their voices.

From this, I also learned what it means to truly be an ally. An ally is someone who stands on the periphery of the aforementioned table, allowing the ones whose issues are being discussed to be the ones claiming the seats. However, as allies, we cannot be selective on which tables we stand on the periphery of, and this is where the conference revealed a major fault in my being an ally. I pride myself on being an adherent to intersectionality, so I was disappointed in myself when I realized that I have never included PWD within the realm of my discourse pertaining to minority rights. However, to be pro-black, pro-Muslim, pro-women, etc. is to be an advocate for the rights of PWD; these identities are not mutually exclusive. Thus, when I say that I am an adherent to intersectionality, I have a responsibility to include all minorities within this claim of adherence.

I believe that for any internal growth to occur, we need to be challenged. Without being challenged, our thought processes and views of life are static, hindering us from moving forward and evolving into better versions of ourselves. I am grateful to the IHR and Dr. Reuter for giving me the opportunity to attend the COSP, for without this experience, I do not think I would have had these faults revealed to me as clearly as they were. As I move forward, I will carry these lessons with me and continue working on bettering myself as both a person and an ally.

A LGBTQ+ Perspective on Today’s World

picture of a gay pride rally in Leeds, England
Leeds Pride. Source: Bryan Ledgard, Creative Commons,

LGBTQ+ youth today may look at the world around them and think all hope is lost. It is understandable because the possibility of an entire community losing their civil rights at any moment is creating a looming fear. As human beings, we all come to terms with ourselves in our own ways; whether it is simply growing into yourself in order to find out who you are, or growing into someone you never imagined. The process of coming to terms with identity is completely different when your sexuality is not the “social norm.” Growing up, I felt scared of myself, and fearful of what the future might hold for people like me. However in 2015, when marriage equality became law, I thought to myself, “We are finally getting to a place where children will not have to grow up like I did.”

My story is not the same as every LGBTQ+ individual around the country, and certainly not across the globe. Every day, I wake up hoping that I do not hear of another story about a Matthew Shepard or Pulse Nightclub tragedy. To live as an open member of the LGBTQ+ community is to live in a constant state of worry. You may not always feel it, but the hum of it, however quiet it may be, still echoes through the back of your mind. It is a worry for your brothers, sisters, others of your community, and for yourself. This infringes upon our right to security, as we are afraid to be ourselves in public spaces. This fear even extends to private places because for many, our families are the main aggressors. For youths who suffer through the pain of oppression at the hands their family, there is never a true sense of peace.

I have faced discrimination throughout the course of my life. Based on my rumored sexuality, I experienced exclusion from many of things. It is a pivotal moment in one’s life when they choose to come out. It is a time that you accept all the ridicule, the torment, and the imminent threat of attack. I have emotional scars from peers and family that still haunt me to this day. Yet, what hurts me most is the look in another person’s eyes when they become aware of my sexuality; it is that look—from people whom I have never met—which is devastating. How can someone who knows nothing about me, judge me?

While the future for American LGBTQ+ youth seems frightening and uncertain, it is nothing compared to those of the LGBTQ+ community across the globe. A LGBTQ+ youth in the Middle East and Northern Africa has a different perspective based upon cultural experience and a belief that there is no hope and fear that there never will be–an upbringing filled with trials comparatively different to those I suffered as a youth. Living as an open member of the LGBTQ+ community in a Muslim country can potentially turn into a life threatening choice. Imagine that: telling your friends and family who you are, and then fearing that your life could end at that exact moment. That fear, no matter how far from home, affects us all.

Turkey is one of the few Middle Eastern countries where homosexuality is legal. Unfortunately, homophobia is still very prevalent so when a group of members from the community tried to initiate their own Pride festival, local authorities shot them with water cannons, rubber bullets, and sprayed them with tear gas. Across the Middle East, there are standing laws to persecute those of the LGBTQ+ community, including imprisonment for up to 10 years. In Ancient Egypt, being gay or lesbian was a godlike quality; however, in modern times, homosexuality is viewed as sin and punishable by death. When the White House went up in rainbow colored lights in 2015, the authorities in Saudi Arabia went on the hunt. Children face death around the country for “deviant” behavior by their own governments. A privately run school in Riyadh was fined $26,500 (in U.S. dollars) for painting the rooftop in rainbow stripes, and one of the administrators for the school was jailed for allowing such a “monstrosity”. Afghanistan banned the decorating of cars with rainbow stickers because it “may be misinterpreted.” In Iran, Yemen, and other Middle Eastern countries, many face execution for engaging in sodomy.

 

a picture of a city hall building, lighted with rainbow colored lights in honor of gay pride
City Hall. Source: Tom Hilton, Creative Commons.

An assembly was called on in 2015 by the United States and Chile to bring light to the attacks on the LGBTQ+ community that are prominent in the Middle East, specifically by the Islamic State. Syrian refugees who fled their war-torn homeland spoke to the United Nations about what their life and the suffering they endured. One man admitted to hiding his sexuality his entire life, saying, “In my society, being gay means death.” Another man told of his witnessing of an al-Qaeda affiliated group taking control of his hometown and began torturing and murdering men that others thought to be gay. Cheering audiences attended the executions of gay men. Some men, tossed from building ledges, meet their death; however, for those who do not die upon impact, the hateful crowd stoned them to death.

Institutionalized discrimination is a prominent threat no matter where one may look across the globe.

In the south and in the US, we feel criminalized; in the Middle East, we are criminalized. 

Being a part of a marginalized community has affected me in many negative ways, but also in positive ways. I feel a commonality with people I have never met and will likely never have the luxury of doing. As a part of the community, I am “branded in rainbow”, which is the most fulfilling feeling that I had experienced. I chose to take all of the negativity that surrounded me and channel it into positivity. This community and a shared experience has made me stronger, more confident, and allowed me to channel my anger by turning it into passion. As a member of this community, I implore you to become more accepting of the people around you, no matter where you may be from or what you may practice. It is powerful to feel human, and it is a feeling we all deserve.

 

 

Protests: Movement Towards Civil Rights

** The National Walkout Day last week and the upcoming March for Our Lives protests organized by the surviving students of the Parkland school shooting in February has prompted this blog repost from 2016. 

Signs carried by many marchers during March on Washington, 1963. Source: Library of Congress, Creative Commons.

 

Have you ever considered the pilgrims’ decision to leave England over religious freedoms, as a protest? Or slave rebellions as a protest to the dehumanizing treatment of being viewed as less than human or 3/5 of a person? Or the suffragettes dressed in white marching for the constitutional right to vote? Often most people point to protest images of the Civil Rights movement or Vietnam War as finite examples of protest, believing that protests are a thing of the past and no longer applicable in 2016. What I find fascinating is how quickly a protest is discounted as merely a group of unsatisfied people gathering together under a banner of their perceived oppression.

I use the phrase “perceived oppression” because it was used as a matter of fact, rather than projected opinion, by Facebook webstar Tomi Lahren in an interview two weeks ago. During a segment, Lahren assumed that Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest was rooted in his “perceived oppression” about how black people and people of color are treated in this country. Aside from The Daily Show audience, Tomi Lahren’s videos boast between 7-17 million views – an incredible feat for someone who doesn’t seem to understand the power of her platform. Lahren is entitled to her opinion. She is granted that right as a human being and a citizen of this country, as written in the first amendment. Additionally, Colin Kaepernick, Black Lives Matter, gay rights activists, and anti-abortionists do too. Here’s where I have issue: the lack of regard for fact and truth. So where does a disregard for truth and fact leave the minorities who are oppressed? They remain outcasts due to opinion rather finding allies through fact.

The fact is oppression is real.

It is not just an impact felt by American minorities; it is an international way of societal coexistence to which the natural response is protest and resistance. **For the sake of this blog, the term ‘minority’ means every group that is not a part of the majority, whether by race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and/or ability.

Many have concluded that the not-so-silent white majority came out in force in support of Trump over Clinton in this election. The narrative is that for the past 6-8 years, their voices had been silenced under a lack of jobs, healthcare, and education. In this election and with this new president, their voices are now being heard. Yet, what about the voices of the minority groups who have been asking for the same things for longer than 6-8 years… how about centuries? When and how will their voices be heard?

Most major languages have a word for violence; however, the idea of nonviolence is the combination of the words that mean ‘not violence’. The Sanskrit word, ahimsa, means ‘not doing harm’, and Mahatma Gandhi reiterated that ahimsa “does not mean meek submission to the will of the evildoer, but it means pitting one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant.” Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are names synonymous to the principle and practice of nonviolent resistance.

Gandhi was the first to explore the expansion of nonviolence from an individual lifestyle into a concerted political and social justice strategy, believing that nonviolence was used with more frequency and brought about more success than violence. Dr. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan analyzed 323 violent and nonviolent resistance movement from over 100 years, substantiating Gandhi’s claim: “nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts.” Dr. Stephen Zunes concludes that nonviolent action, in the form of resistance, has been taking place as a part of political life for centuries. It is their success which has garnered attention as the cause of human rights has advanced as a direct result of “toppling or dramatically reforming repressive regimes.” Nonviolence protest is a deliberate tool for social change. It is not an ad hoc strategy. It is, rather, a methodical method of struggle which is no longer simply rooted in religious or ethical principles. Gene Sharp labels it as political defiance.

So what is protest?

Protest is a right. The first amendment of our Constitution grants all Americans the right to peaceful assembly and to express dissatisfaction to the government. Additionally, according to Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), peaceful assembly has been declared a human right. The clarifying word is peaceful, or nonviolent, in both documents. It is imperative to understand that a riot is not a right.

Protest is different to riot. Dr. King emphasized that the riot is socially destructive and self-defeating but it is also the “language of the unheard,” thus the counteraction to a riot is to organize in nonviolent resistance based on the principle of love.

Kiev monk hearing confession during protest. Source: Jim Forest, Creative Commons.

 

Protest is not passive. Students in Serbia (Yugoslavia) organized a nonviolent resistance in cities around the country as a means of protesting the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic. They called themselves, Otpor!. By adapting Gene Sharp’s book as a manual, Otpor! positioned themselves under a threefold banner of unity, planning, and nonviolent discipline. The strategy was nonviolent resistance with concerts, sprayed painted slogans, and ridicule of the government, including a “birthday party for Milosevic”. The resistance which began as a student-led protest became a movement of more than 700,000, resulting in an overthrown government.

Protest is the struggle for recognition of an injustice. By honing in on societal structural violence, which is made manifest through cultural and social institutions, nonviolent protests are not about ‘attacking people’ as much as they are about calling attention to and addressing the “psychological, social, economic, and political weapons applied by the population and the institutions of the society”, believes Gene Sharp. In New York City 1985, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the gay community and their heterosexual allies took to the streets in protest of governmental failure to fund and research a cure. At the time, millions of people worldwide had succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses. Activists under the banner of ACT UP and TAG sought to bring awareness and solution to governmental decision to penalize human beings for their lifestyle choice. Therefore, not only were they denied their constitutional right to protest but their human right to medical care which is included in the standard of living, identified in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The UDHR is the international standard for the treatment of human beings. The document sheds light on Dr. King’s pronouncement that “Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” What interesting is that the Pledge of Allegiance and the Constitution of the United States of America both speak of liberty and justice is for all, and that all men are created equal. Equality is a misnomer for some citizens of this country and the world.

How does justice exist for all if you are the target of a hate crime or laws designed against you?

Gandhi said, “The first condition of nonviolence is justice all round in every department of life. Perhaps, it is too much to expect of human nature. I do not, however, think so. No one should dogmatize the capacity of human nature for degradation or exaltation.” To find justice all round in every department of life, a person must begin with self. Johann Gottlieb Fichte announced, “if you are to see differently, you must first of all become different.”

Source: Revolution Messaging, Creative Commons.

Protest is the courageous outward expression of inner dissatisfaction or disapproval. Angela Y. Davis asserts that the struggle is exemplified in protest. Grassroots nonviolent movements, or as Diana Francis refers to them as “people power” movements, have consistently challenged repressive and unjust systems for generations. So what can you do to join nonviolent resistance movements which seek to expose and eradicate structural violence directed at minorities in the form of oppression and repression? Adapt four characteristics of a nonviolent ethic as exemplified in Gandhi and King. The four characteristics of identity and ethics from the lives of Dr. King and Gandhi are a compassionate, cosmopolitan worldview, a truthful reality, an educated voice, and love. As students of their work and life, we can possess and impress these characteristics upon others, transforming the world through personal change in order to garner social change.

  • A compassionate, cosmopolitan worldview: The word cosmopolitan comes from the Greek words cosmo meaning world, as in universe not earth, and polis referring to the city that one owes loyalty. Voltaire says, “Cosmopolitans… regard all the peoples of the earth as so many branches of a single family, and the universe as a state, of which they, with innumerable other rational beings, are citizens, prompting together under the general laws of nature the perfection of the whole, while each in his own fashion is busy about his own well-being.” Therefore, the possession of a cosmopolitan worldview means we have placed ourselves under the loyalty of the world and the citizens who share this common space, with the added dimension of compassion.
  • A truthful reality: A truthful reality is not a denial of the past. It is the understanding that the past and those who endured it, are the launching pad for those of us living in the present. Davis states, “in the 1960s we confronted issues that should have been resolved in the 1860s. And I’m making this point because what happens when 2060 rolls around? Will people still be addressing these same issues? And I also think it’s important for us to think forward and imagine future history in a way that is not restrained by our own lifetimes.”
  • An educated voiceWilliam Ellery Channing concluded that “others are affected by what I am, and say, and do. And these others have also their sphere of influence. So that a single act of mine may spread in widening circles through a nation or humanity.” Everett Rogers studies the diffusion of innovations in societies. He has concluded that for an idea–whether true or false, good or bad—to become embedded in society, it only takes 5% of the population to believe it, and if 20% become aware of the idea, it becomes unstoppable. In Rwanda, the genocide of Tutsis by Hutus in April 1994, was because of untruths spewed from the radio.
  • Love: Dr. King professed that “love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.” The beauty of love is that you can love and disagree. Love is a choice. You choose to be ruled and guided by love, just as you choose to be ruled and guided by fact or opinion, or emotions and feelings.

Protest gives an AND rather than an OR.

 

Black Panther: A Game-Changing Film

A laughing boy.
Child laughing. Source: cheriejoyful, Creative Commons

On February 16, 2018, the revolutionary movie, Black Panther, was finally released for the world to enjoy.  The film provides the audience with a much-needed source of representation for the black community, both on and off-screen.  Black Panther is part of a revolutionary change in an industry that has historically disregarded people of color.

Depiction of Black Characters

It is easy to see that Black Panther is a game-changer in the film industry in relation to its production, but it also includes a much-improved depiction of black characters.  They are multi-dimensional and have their own personal histories and experiences.  They are not forced into any one single role, challenging the idea that people of minorities are limited to the surface-level narratives that society usually expects.  They are real people who have struggles, fears, and triumphs.  It lacks the stereotypes that films often use to create characters of color.  The normative roles given to black actors are often of dangerous criminals with limited education, such as drug dealers and con-artists.  These kinds of characters worsen the incorrect and harmful perception that much of society has of black men.  When black roles are actually given positive characteristics, they are still generally given littles depth, and are used as nothing more than support for the white main character.

The Black Panther himself, T’Challa, is not just a superhero (though his being a superhero is significant in itself).  He is the king of Wakanda and acts as a diplomat, representing and speaking on behalf of his country at the United Nations.  He is respectful of women and recognizes their value and strength, as seen through his female bodyguards, the Dora Milaje.  He does not let toxic masculinity impact his actions and has a strong connection to his family.  T’Challa is brave, intelligent, and compassionate, making him a well-developed main character and hero.

Even Eric Killmonger is given depth and undeniably human experiences.  If one seeks a traditional villain among the movies’ characters, most signs point to him.  All of his actions are focused around defeating the Black Panther and taking over the throne, and he does not care what it takes to do so.  However, if we look closer, the circumstances are not so black and white.  His anger towards T’Challa stems from the death of his father and Wakanda’s years of ignorance of the suffering of African Americans.  His primary goal in defeating T’Challa, is to send Wakandan resources to people facing oppression.  His methods were misguided, but his motivations are fairly easy to understand.

The development of Killmonger conveys the idea that we all think of ourselves as the hero in our own stories.  T’Challa sees himself as the hero, fighting to save the country he knows and loves.  Killmonger sees himself as the hero, trying to correct the wrongs of the past and seek what he believes to be justice.  The only thing that changes is the framework of the story, the perspective through which you are experiencing it.  In real life, the vast majority people make the choices they make because they believe they are doing the right thing (even when they are wrong).  While this does not excuse actions that harm other people or mean that everyone is concerned with doing the right things, it does suggest that wrongdoings are not independent events.  Every experience we have impacts the choices we make.  If we want to make the world a better place, we have to address the causes and events that have led to different negative situations.

People are complex.  The fact that this concept is explored in a film about characters of color is indescribably important because it goes against the stereotypes and archetypes that are often used to create such characters.  It gives the characters dimensions which reflect the human experience that connects all people.

Depiction of Women of Color

The film’s use of well-rounded characters does not end with those who are male.  The character stereotype of black women in films is loud and dramatic and is perceived as having an attitude problem.  They are considered bossy, aggressive, and sometimes even mean.  The female characters in Black Panther defy traditional expectations and radiate empowerment.  Black Panther depicts numerous powerful black women without objectifying and over-sexualizing them as many movies do.  They are just normal women.  Realistic, intelligent, kind, and brave. These characters stand on their own and serve a greater purpose than supporting the development the male characters.

Shuri, T’Challa’s half-sister, is a sixteen-year-old genius who leads the development of Wakandan technology.  She offers representation for increasing number of women and young girls, especially those of color, who aspire to be part of the STEM field.  She is not limited to being “the smart one.”  When the time comes, she is ready and more than willing to be part of the fight to protect her country.  In addition to her brilliance and strength, she is also equipped with a vibrant personality.

Okoye is a member of Dora Milaje, the group of women who act as bodyguards for the Black Panther.  She is a fierce warrior, dedicated to serving her people to the best of her ability.  She is strong and loyal, ready to sacrifice her relationship to do what is right for her country.  She would do anything to protect Wakanda.

Nakia is a Wakandan spy, who goes undercover in an effort to undermine human traffickers in the beginning of the film.  She takes action and puts herself in dangerous situations in order to help others.  Her work is her passion and main priority, and she refuses to sacrifice it for the sake of romance. She also encourages T’Challa to share the resources of Wakanda with the rest of the world.  She is driven and wants to make the world better place.  She is a world-shaker.

A smiling boy.
Jamaican. Source: Ashley Campbell, Creative Commons

Watching Black Panther as a White Woman

This film is not just important for the black community, or even just for minority groups.  It is important for white people to watch the film as well.  As a white woman, I originally went to watch Black Panther to simply support a film I knew was important for people of color and to enjoy the experience.  However, as I sat in a theater full of children of color, listening to their reactions to the dialogue and every plot twist, I truly believe that I gained a deeper understanding of the film’s importance.  The kids were excited and absorbed in every moment.  I realized the extent to which I am privileged to have characters I can identify with in just about every movie and television show.  It is something that I have taken for granted for a long time.

I also realized how important it is that black people have an increased opportunity to speak.  White people need to be close allies of course, but we should not dominate the conversation.  We need to support the creation and maintenance of platforms from which they can represent themselves.  We have a history of making everything about us, and we need to ensure that that does not continue.  In the past, white people have stolen land, enslaved entire nations of people, and destroyed families for their own selfish gain.  We now need to be a part of fixing the damage that our ancestors have caused and work to empower people of color in every way possible.

Why Does this Matter?

There are some people who question the importance of representation in the media.  They do not understand why it is so vital to have well-developed characters of color and female characters.  Dr. Christopher Bell provided a thorough explanation of this in his TED Talk, “Bring on the Female Superheroes!”  In his talk, Bell explains public pedagogy, or “how societies are taught ideologies.”  This involves concepts such as what it means to be a member of the different genders, how to behave while in public, and how to be polite.  According to Bell, we now live in a 100% media saturated society, meaning every part of our lives, including public pedagogy, is influenced by what we seen on television, in films, and on social media.  The characters and the people that children see through the media are key in their understanding of the world.  When children are unable to see people they identify with as leaders, scientists, or artists, it is difficult for them to see a future where they are doing those things.  The media you consume impacts your outlook on who you can be.

The film shows traditional gender roles being smashed through all its characters.  Women can be warriors, scientists, and world-changers. They can be protectors and leaders. Men can be compassionate and emotional. They do not have to fit into ‘traditional masculinity’.  People can support each other in their choices, regardless of how it fits societal expectations.  In the film, the country of Wakanda contains a society in which gender roles do not seem to apply.  The proposal of a woman becoming the leader and Black Panther is not questioned.  The king’s guards are women, and no one tries to fight it or questions the Dora Milaje’s ability to protect their leader.  All people are equal and are offered the same opportunities.

In addition to its being a huge leap in representation, the film also acts as a proof that change is possible.  More representation, better opportunities, and a better future are all within reach for marginalized groups.  It is crucial that we maintain this momentum.  The Black Panther film is an immense milestone, but there is still more to do.  There still needs to be more representation for the black community and similar representation for other people of color.  We need to work towards a future where such a representative film is a norm rather than an anomaly.

 

Moving Towards Environmental Justice: The Flint Water Crisis & Structural Racialization

the Flint Michigan Water Plant
Flint Water Crisis is ongoing. Source: George Thomas, Creative Commons

“Nothing that has been uncovered to date suggests that anyone intended to poison the people of Flint” (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017).  The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint report was authored in response to the growing cries from community members, government officials, victims, and bystanders concerned with the abject lack of proper response to Flint water crisis which began roughly at the middle of 2014.  The Flint Water Crisis, nationally and internationally infamous for the beleaguered and dangerous handling by all levels of government, has been documented, historicized, lectured upon, and dissected from news publishers, academics institutions, watchdog groups, government organizations, and everyone in between.  The bottom line is government officials cut costs in water sanitation and pipe replacements, the consequences of which sparked a full-blown state of emergency, and finally culminated in the deaths of Flint citizens from Legionnaire’s disease and other complications from the consumption of unclean water; those implicated range from District Water Supervisor Busch to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.  The failings in Flint, as argued by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, extend far beyond the ineptitude of handfuls of government officials and their lack of planning or preparedness.  The requisite conditions necessary for a crisis of this magnitude festered many years ago, perhaps as far back as the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson.  Flint’s problems are institutional and systemic, and unfortunately, it took a catastrophe to bring these issues to the surface.

Structural racialization is understood as the tendency for social groups to “organize around structures that produce discriminatory results… without themselves possessing any personal animus” (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017).  In other words, an individual can actively contribute to community systems that result in suppression without actually harboring ill will to the victims of suppression themselves.  Ignorance/implicit bias, according to john a. powell (2010), is the primary driver behind structural racialization and its horrifying consequences.  Implicit bias–directly linked to structural racialization–sustains the longevity of the structures which cause discrimination, and these structures are kept alive only if the contributors to the structures are unaware of the malevolent consequences of the structures themselves (powell, 2010).  In the case of Flint, structural racialization began many years before the water crisis, and these implicit, racial structures ensured destruction from the crisis unfairly affected largely black, poor, politically unconnected individuals in the Flint area (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017). Using the term ‘structural racialization’ to describe a public health catastrophe, such as the Flint Water Crisis, offers no binding legal or moral prescription.  There is no way to sue a ‘structure’ for unfair or discriminatory harm.  The structure, in these cases, is reciprocally determined by every individual who unknowingly benefits from the structure and does not actively fight against the structure’s survival (powell, 2010).  The case of Flint is rife with example.  Contribution to underlying power structures such as these begins with implicit bias- it is the first stronghold keeping the structure in place.  Implicit bias, by definition, is unseen and unfelt. In this case, the denizens of Flint and the surrounding areas had no awareness of their complicity in structural racialization.  Without this awareness, there can be no hope to fight it.

Beyond the psychology of the issue is the legalistic support of structural racialization. In Flint, this involves segregated housing. The 1900-1930s saw a time of deeply-seated racist and discriminatory housing market practices that forcibly shepherded blacks and poorer whites into select neighborhoods in Flint.  These were effectively ‘ghettos’ and ensured black renters and homeowners were segregated from whites (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017).  Fast forward to present day: the neighborhoods hit hardest by the Water Crisis are neighborhoods that historically have belonged to poor and black renters and homeowners.  Racist business practices in the Jim Crow era exacerbated the loss and destruction felt by black and poor Flint citizens in the present day.

A woman holds water bottles filled with contaminated water in Flint
Flint Water Crisis. Source: Renee B, Creative Commons.

This is not to say the black community in Flint is the only one to feel the deleterious effects of the water crisis.  This public health emergency does not discriminate along ethnic lines. The discriminatory practices that trapped black Flint citizens holds that honor alone.  In 2017, a full three years after the crisis began, clean water is still an issue in Flint.  What do we tell the citizens of Flint?  How can they take civic action to expedite the process of returning to ‘normal’ life post-crisis?  Diana Francis, noted peacemaker and democracy advocate, espouses the concept of ‘speaking truth to power’.  This notion contends people–everyday concerned citizens–are the impetus of action in situational injustice.  Indeed, the recent criminal charges brought against Flint city administrators and politicians show a ‘top-down’ approach to this crisis is both unrealistic and ineffective.  For Francis, the true heroes in this story are citizens affected by and emphatic to the crisis.  Examining the normative response to Flint reveals a public willing to undertake protest and direct action, and a public expecting a direct confrontation with the individuals and systemic structures responsible for this crisis.  Here are some examples: a music festival raising awareness and money for the victims of Flint, national groups donating time and energy to provide resources to disenfranchised Fint citizens, whistleblowers risking their livlihoods to make the crisis public, and academics donating their skills to investigating the crisis itself.  These civil society actors may hold the key to eliminating the effects of the Flint water crisis and eradicating the conditions that precipitated the crisis in the first place.  Of course, this empowered response is not an assumed reaction.

In the face of a fully-fledged public health emergency, many citizens in Flint did not feel any semblance of trust in their elected officials to mitigate the crisis without state- or national-level intervention.  Without this trust, the citizens may have felt unable or ineffective to act against the discriminatory power structures in Flint.  This problem, unlike replacing pipes, cannot be ameliorated by federal funding or outside medical intervention.  Addressing this collective distrust will involve some form of cultural transformation.  These deeper fixes must involve the access to elected officials the general public has and the public’s ability to provide continuous feedback to these officials.  At several times in the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (2017), citizens of Flint (of all ethnicities) went on the record saying their concerns regarding water safety went unaddressed due to many factors, such as:

1) no knowledge of how to reach elected officials,

2) feeling their complaints were ‘unheard’ or ‘unseen’ to those who could help the situation,

3) fear of retaliation if undocumented immigrants or individuals with criminal records came forward with concerns, and

4) willful neglect on the part of government officials who simply did not feel accountable for the plights of minorities (involving both ethnicity and socioeconomic status) in the Flint area.

Two protesters hold signs decrying the lack of clean water in Flint
January 19, 2016 Lansing Protest against Gov Snyder regarding Flint Water Crisis. Source: nic antaya, Creative Commons

Moving forward, how can both human rights advocates and ordinary citizens protect rights equally in all corners of the globe and also address the grievances of individuals in Flint?  A shift towards environmental justice may be the answer.  This term means two things. First, all persons, regardless of identifying characteristics (ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, income level, etc.) have the right to enjoy the environment equally. Second, the responsibility of civic participation in the protection and maintenance of the environment belongs to all persons (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017).  Environmental justice takes its cue from Third Generation Human Rights (aka right to the environment) and adds the necessary ingredient of civic participation.  As I have stated previously on this blog, human rights are protected by “people, not documents”.  Given the second caveat of environmental justice, what happens if ordinary people have no avenue to address a public health hazard?  A crisis like Flint erupts.  What conditions predicate an inability to make these addresses?  This post contends a key condition is structural racialization.  Addressing the massive failures apparent in the Flint Water Crisis moves far beyond faulty equipment and the Flint city administration’s glacial response time.  Addressing this egregious human rights violation requires analysis going back at least a century in order to fully understand the complex interaction between history and the present.  Furthermore, the only long-term, stable solution to this issue is to equip the citizens of Flint with inexperienced political power and know-how.  This may include any of the following: a free, fair, and frequent election process; a truly representative (i.e. ethnicity, socio-economic status) local administration; a political mechanism by which citizens can openly voice public health concerns; and funding available in case large-scale crises such as these emerge.  Environmental justice in Flint, Michigan will only be achieved when the insidious structures barring unfettered access to a clean environment and free critique of those hindering this access are dismantled in their entirety.

 

Sources:

Powell, j. a. (2010).  Structural racialization and the geography of opportunity.  Online lecture. http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/2010_0611_tfn_sm_growth_training.pdf

Michigan Civil Rights Commission (2017).  The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flinthttps://www.michigan.gov/documents/mdcr/VFlintCrisisRep-F-Edited3-13-17_554317_7.pdf

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

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