Black and Blue: What’s Causing America’s Bruise?

By Stacy Moak, UAB Professor of Social Work

This article was originally published on the Lister Hill Center for Health Policy blog on June 19, 2020.

Discussions of police in everyday life have triggered strong reactions from citizens as long as we have had the concept of police. Arguments over whether they should wear uniforms, whether they should be paid, and whether they should carry weapons have all persisted throughout time and across multiple countries. The concept of the police in America was borrowed from the British system of having “beat cops” or officers who patrolled at the local level. In England, still today, these community officers do not carry weapons. The British police force was established in 1829 and employs the concept of police by consent, not by force. As a result, the general opinion is that arming the police sends the wrong message to citizens and creates more problems than it solves. Yet, in the US, officers cannot envision a police force that is not armed with firearms. Policing in America has evolved over time and developed into a punitive system of “enforcement” that has pushed the entire system away from community problem solvers and toward a militaristic mind set of reactions to certain situations, often without rational analysis of what is actually occurring. Thus, policing has evolved more toward fighting a war– the war on drugs, the war on poverty – in which police are the soldiers and citizens are the subjects. However, the evidence is clear that overuse of police as a form of social control has devastating consequences for the health of communities (Public Health Behind Bars, Robert Greifinger, 2007). Such over-policing leads directly and indirectly to destabilized communities and overall social injustice. Further, it creates a system in which activities of the poor and minorities are more highly policed and punished than activities of the wealthy or white majority. Communities that suffer the most from over-policing generally suffer from a host of other deprivations and become tangled in a web of instability. Once that occurs, perceptions of destabilized communities begin to shape the ways that people outside the community view persons who live in those communities. Persons from those communities are often portrayed as more violent, more aggressive, and less likely to respond to reason. These labels apply to everyone from that particular community, including children, and often follow those children as they enter school. Children from these communities are labeled trouble makers at very young ages (as young as 3 or 4) and are often pushed out of mainstream educational facilities. Because of interaction with the criminal justice systems, adults have trouble finding jobs and/or stable housing, and family dynamics are disrupted. A cycle of negative police/citizen interaction begins to occur because of overuse of punitive approaches to address social problems, and police officers are tasked with providing interventions across a wide array of social services more appropriate to social workers, school and marriage counselors, substance abuse counselors, soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and general mechanic and car maintenance.

When police are the first responders to social problems, punishment is the response most often handed down. Punishment, enforcement, and restraint are the skills for which police receive most of their training. Examples of this problem can be noted across the life span, but are perhaps most easily demonstrated in adolescents. For example, white youth and minority youth participate in delinquency such as recreational drug use, underage drinking, skipping school, fighting, and other types of delinquency at similar rates. Self-report studies indicate that delinquency is almost universal as a part of adolescent development. However, black and brown youth are held in juvenile detention centers at 3 to 4 times the rate of their white counterparts. Their numbers continue to increase even when juvenile crime statistics drop. Part of the reason for the disproportionate numbers of youth in juvenile detention stems from the presence of police officers in schools. Because these youth are identified as more dangerous and less amenable to treatment, school-based police officers respond with punitive practices that work to remove them from school. Once removed from school, the only real intervention at the community level is the juvenile court. Most black and brown youth live in urban areas with larger public schools. More police officers are assigned to these schools; therefore, more poor children and children of color are victims of overusing police and courts for behaviors more appropriately handled by schools and parents. Overuse of punitive practices creates a school to prison pipeline that suspends and expels more minority youth from school than their white counterparts. Even when youth are “caught” for the same activity, the minority youth is more likely to be arrested, petitioned to juvenile court, and detained in a detention center which sets off an array of negative interactions and social stigma that is almost impossible to overcome. The school to prison pipeline creates generational disenfranchisement, poverty, and systematic oppression of entire communities.

Graphic of rates of drug use and sales by race next to graphic of drug-related arrests by race
Source: The Hamilton Project

But problems in school are not the only contributor to the overuse of police in society. Lack of adequate health care also works to ensure that poor people and people of color will go to prison instead of to mental health clinics or rehabilitation centers for substance abuse and mental health issues. Instead of having diagnoses that are recognized and treated, even at very young ages, people without adequate health insurance or preventative health care are labeled by the symptoms of their illnesses. As services shrink in the community, law enforcement is used as the social service delivery system for this group. Instead of citizens receiving counseling and accurate mental health diagnosis that could treat their health issues, they are arrested, incarcerated, and offered very few if any services. For a drug charge, a person with insurance will likely go to a rehab facility. A person without insurance will likely go to prison. Studies indicate that 20% of jail inmates and 15% of prison inmates suffer from major depression or psychosis and as many as 87% of those have comorbid substance abuse issues. Citizens without insurance in our society are more likely to have unresolved trauma, which is often exacerbated by interaction with poorly trained police officers. Those same individuals are more likely to be perceived as dangerous, more aggressive, and not amenable to treatment. As a result, they are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be detained prior to trial, and more likely to be incarcerated. When they are eventually released (95% will return to communities) they are sent back to communities with little to no continuity care plan which almost insures that they will encounter the criminal justice system again.

So, what alternative police practices and systematic strategies could we envision that would work to dismantle this perpetual cycle of violence, trauma, and overall injustice that is levied disproportionately on poor and minority communities? First, I would propose that police agencies examine the role of police in everyday life and create policies that actually reflect those defined roles. The role of the police is “to protect and serve.” Let’s unpack that statement – to protect and serve – not to arrest, apprehend, serve as judge and juror, intimidate, harass, incarcerate, shoot, bully, or kill – protect and serve. Yet most of our emphasis in police departments across the US revolves around tactical weaponry, restraint techniques, defensive driving, and legal procedures of arrest that will lead to convictions. Perhaps refocusing training on de-escalation strategies, trauma informed care, and implicit bias could provide better understanding and more opportunities for officers to assist in resolving conflicts peacefully. Do police officers really need full armored SWAT gear? And military grade weaponry? When police posture defensively as if their role is to protect themselves against dangerous citizens (again as if they are soldiers and citizens are the subjects) the response from citizens is likely also to be defensive and reactionary. Beyond new recruits at the police academy, officers who have been on the force for long periods of time and serve as field training officers need the same training as new recruits on the above-mentioned issues. Many times, they work to undermine positive training received in police academies. If these more seasoned officers resist training, or refuse to comply with new protocols, they should be reassigned to departmental activities that do not require citizen interaction. We can no longer afford to have business as usual and rely on statements like, “that’s the way it has always been.” Agencies must be proactive in removing old ways of thinking and performing and replace them with more educated and better-informed practices that work to restore police-community relations. A merit system could be implemented that rewards positive behavior with pay incentives or merit toward promotions. Police should be treated as professionals, paid as professionals, and held accountable as professionals.

Photo of police officer in a school hallway
Source: Justice Policy Institute

Secondly, I would propose that we examine the services for which police are being used in place of other, more appropriate social service delivery specialists. For example, commissioned law enforcement officers are not the proper authority to handle adolescents in schools – especially when dollars spent to employ the police could be redirected to employ social workers and counselors to address the underlying causes of much adolescent behavior. The experiment with School Resource Officers (SROs) was intended to create trust among students and police where police would function in a counselor/educator role. However, the reality has been that schools have turned over general disciplinary actions as well as drug/alcohol enforcement provisions to SROs. They do not work as much in an education/counselor capacity as they do as the enforcer for a host of school-based rule infractions that lead to more kids being suspended, expelled, or processed in juvenile court. Instead of fostering healthy relationships with police and students, students do not trust them and try to avoid them. A better alternative seems to be to employ a school based social worker at each school instead of an SRO. One argument for SROs has been the prevalence of school shootings and the need for student safety. However, school shootings were not the original intent of SROs, and school shootings remain very rare occurrences. When these tragedies do occur, it is rarely an SRO who protects students or who intervenes during these instances, which makes school safety concerns an inadequate argument for placing police officers in schools. Their presence adds to the school to prison pipeline and works to create hostility between youth and police very early in life.  Zero tolerance policies should be replaced with restorative community policies within schools to teach negotiation strategies that students could actually use in future interactions. Dialogue about complex issues should be encouraged among students and opportunities should be seized to provide education around community health, community harm, and community restoration.

This conversation would not be complete without recognizing that the work of policing a community is stressful. Rarely do police officers receive adequate training for the job. Even more rarely do they receive counseling and support for their own trauma that they experience on the job. For example, one of the most stressful parts of law enforcement jobs is not the hostage negotiation that ends in a shoot-out; instead, it is responding to traffic accidents. Officers might retire from the police force without ever using their firearm, but the chances of them viewing a dead child in an overturned car after a crash are high. When officers’ trauma is not addressed, that trauma becomes the lens through which everything else is viewed. A normal response is to have a heightened sense of self-preservation – and every possible encounter with a citizen presents the possibility of a negative outcome. Some of the resources within police departments should be reinvested in the officers to provide training, support, and counseling that they need to be healthy community members both on and off the job. To complement these resources, the culture within the department must also change to promote positive mental health among officers. Currently the stigma of mental health issues as signs of weakness permeate police culture. Changing those views will take time, but the culture of health that is discussed in communities must also apply to police agencies throughout the US.

Graphic showing 85% of first responders have experienced mental health problems, graphic of mental health stigma at work
Source: University of Phoenix
Graphic showing rates of mental health stigma at work
Source: University of Phoenix

Finally, and probably the most inflammatory part of this post, we must have honest conversations about the systematic racial oppression in the US and the role that all systems of government have played in developing and keeping it in place. Minority groups are presented as more dangerous, more violent, more in need of police, and only responsive to force. Such portrayals are not accidental, but work specifically to detract from empathy that might otherwise be shown to them as fellow human beings. The scourge of racism is so deeply engrained in our justice systems in the US that even minority officers do not know how to discuss it, react to it, or work to dismantle it. The militarized hierarchy within police agencies causes a veil of silence among officers who fear reprimand if they are perceived as trouble makers, liberals, or sympathizers. Citizens have so little trust in the police, or the system of justice, that they are often victims without a voice. These are not characteristics of a free society, and they must be replaced with conversation, understanding, and a shared vision for what citizens want the police to do in their communities and how that will be accomplished. In the end, police officers are public servants, and their role is to protect and serve the community and every member of the community. For anyone who reads this and has an interest in taking a deeper dive into racism in the US, I would recommend three books to readThe Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein; Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum; and So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo.

The Fiasco between Africans and African-Americans

A multi-cultural Image
In unity lies our strength.                          Source: Yahoo Image

For a long period of time, there has been a long-existing history of an unfathomable and a silently raging rift between Africans and African-Americans or “Afro-Americans,” as some now refer. It should be noted that the relationship between these two races can never be erased or forgotten even though there seems to be a discouraging high-level of historical ignorance or lack of in-depth understanding, especially amongst the newer generations of both races. The connection between Africans and African-Americans goes quite a long way prior to the era of slavery, which I believe warrants a brief trip down memory lane to refresh some existing knowledge on this subject.

We begin by looking at the words of Audrey Smedley, who believes race or ideas about the difference in human color was developed during the era of African slavery. He believed up until the 18th century, Africans were generally positive people who engaged mostly in farming and cattle breeding. They had industries, arts and crafts, commerce and an existing form of government. After invading Africa, the Europeans realized Africans were better farmers and laborers, and immune to several diseases, which were perfect attributes in high demand within the colonialist world at the time. The colonists understood they needed the prowess and strength of Africans to meet their demands and as such, they developed the idea of transporting them across Europe and America, which was then referred to as the ‘New-World’, knowing they would have no means of escape or return.

According to the UShistory website, the Portuguese began the first slave trade agreement in 1472, which saw an influx of over 11 million Africans into America and across a few European nations as slaves. African slave trading became a lucrative business avenue amongst the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch, and after North America was colonized by Europeans, there were vast lands in dire need of labor which led to the purchase of the first permanent African slaves from Dutch in 1619. Due to their physicality and agricultural abilities, the slaves proved to be highly productive on the farms where they mostly cultivated cash crops ranging from sugar, rice and tobacco. This went on for decades until the anti-slavery movement began which subsequently led to the Civil War in 1861, the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862, and an adoption of the 13th Amendment of the constitution in 1865 which outlawed all slave trade practices.

After the abolition of slave trade, issues of race got more intensified due to the non-acceptance of black people and has since become the central point of human attention, interaction and relationship.  It constituted the major form of human identity, a discouraging phenomenon that still gallantly exist in our world today. The creation and addition of a new race in form of Africa-America started a new chapter in human existence and history, which has led to a whole new level of feisty societal restructuring, rebalancing and rearrangements till date. Although whenever issues relating to racial differences arise, most people would most likely always refer to the forever existing tensed-filled relationship between African-Americans and the White race, but not so many would consider the possibility of any discord between other races, most especially Africans and African-Americans. To this end, I will be explaining a few reasons for the existing rift between Africans and African-Americans.

An image distinguishing between an African look from an african-american
Two continents fussed in one face           Source: Yahoo Image

The first reason to consider is the comparison debate between Africans and African-Americans, about who have suffered or continuously suffers the most. We begin by considering the latter’s historical slavery struggles which has obviously spilled over and transformed into the present-day inequality and inequity they are continuously forced to endure. History clearly made us realize the dehumanizing and disheartening low-level of inhumane treatments and conditions they had to go through before the abolition of slavery, and it is no longer news that the present American structure and system is continuously finessed to favor Caucasians who are majority over the minority blacks. With this understanding, some African-Americans always see African immigrants as opportunist who are profiting from their struggles despite not having shared in their pains or experienced  the horrible and derogatory racial discriminations like they did, which is a reason for their mutual relationship with White Americans. They believe Africans do not share in their ideology and are unwilling to participate in their political and civil rights movements.

On the other hand, Africans continuously grieve their pathetic level of underdevelopment which evidence suggest came as a result of the European invasion. As earlier stated, the entire African continent was developing at a steady pace but lost the plot when valuable human and material resources were taken by the colonialists. According to Nathan Nunn, slavery is the major factor for Africa’s underdevelopment till date; a phenomenon which has created ethnic fractionalization and undermined the effectiveness of several African nations. Recent studies suggest Africa’s 72% average income gap with the rest of the world would not have existed if not for slave trade. He believes the reason for the continent’s poor economic performance is due to the effect of slave trade and colonialism which has led to the endless poverty and incessant conflict, poor leadership, lack of basic social amenities and infrastructure, over dependency on foreign aid, poor health and educational facilities, amongst other challenges. It also affects the present cultural and social outcomes of the continent responsible for the present ethnic division, trust concerns, HIV prevalence, ethno-religious differences, and the high rate of polygyny (i.e. a practice of men having multiple wives) amongst other factors that continuously push the continent aback.

Another reason to consider is the trust issues that exits between the two races. So many African-Americans have some misconceptions that Africans cannot be trusted due to their willingness in allowing their fellow brothers and sisters be taken or sold into slavery, while some perceive them to be highly promiscuous due to the high rate of polygyny in the region. To point out the fallacy with the former, studies have revealed that majority of African slaves were captured through acts of kidnappings, raids and warfare, and through judicial processes, while only a few were literally sold by their relatives or friends as slaves. To address the latter, several studies have identified the trans-Atlantic slave trade as the major factor for the high prevalence of polygyny because only men were initially captured and sold as slaves across America which consequently resulted in the decrease amongst the male population and further tilted the sex ratio in many African nations most especially within West and East Africa.

Furthermore on the factors to consider, there is a wide belief or notion amongst Africans about African-Americans misusing their available opportunities despite enduring numerous challenges and difficulties. It is important to note that Africans alongside other races also, share in the belief that America is a land of dreams and opportunities and will always be a dream destination for many. For Africans, one major reason why they migrate to the U.S. is centered around education due to the outstanding level of human and material resources invested in this sector. As widely known, education remains one of the best and golden ticket to living a better life as individuals, which also helps improve the socio-economic growth and development of the community. Another reason why Africans migrate to the U.S. is because of the availability of several decent job opportunities for both legal and undocumented immigrants. By either migrating for job purposes or education, they remain great opportunities that most likely guarantees any individual to live a long, healthy and happy life.

Image of Women dressed in African Attires during an event
Diversity should be celebrated not discriminated Source: Yahoo Image

On the other hand, some African-Americans blame the continuous influx of African immigrants into the U.S. to have negatively impacted the number of jobs that is available to them. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), the early immigrant influx into the U.S. between 1980-2000 resulted in 20% to 60% wages decline, 25% employment decline, and 10% rise in incarceration rates among blacks with high school education or less. Based on these statistics, it is understandable to see the plights and frustrations amongst African-American populations, but the increase in the incarceration rates could also be attributed to the heavy trafficking of crack cocaine within black communities which caused the police to enact and enforce tougher sentencing laws and subsequently resulting in the incarceration of one-quarter of low-skilled black men.

On a light note, the United States Census Bureau in June 2019, confirmed that about 13 million workers have more than one job, while a report by CNBC on February 2019, shows U.S. employers posted the most open jobs of about 7.3 million which was a valid evidence that the U.S. job market is actually strong. Also, according to the political typology survey 2020, 61% supports the notion for the country to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with Whites, 65% believe immigrants hard work and talents have strengthened the country tremendously, 61% believe most people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work hard, while over 55% believe blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition.

NFL Star dressed in an African attire
Let’s Save our Future                               Source: Yahoo Image

Based on this knowledge, it aches the heart to see Africans and African-Americans alongside other races have such a resentful, unfriendly and defensive relationship against one another till date. It is true we have all gone through various levels of hardship, turmoil, and suffering which serves as reasons we continuously hold deep grudges against others, but its high time we looked beyond and move on. In as much as we feel justified about our present bitterness or anger towards certain people or races due to our past experiences, we should remember the adage which says, “Two wrongs can never make a right”. It is almost certain that whenever we cloud our minds with negative judgements before relating with others, we would most likely find a way to justify our negative thoughts about them irrespective of the outcome, as such, we all should always set aside our presumptions, perceptions and judgements when relating with others and it is only through this means, can we look beyond our racial differences and respect each other as humans. It is a shame we are still regressing in this 21st century but we can begin by remembering our past, but not dwell on them because when we do, we are prone to live our everyday lives on them, and history has made us to understand that decisions we make in anger or frustration are those that will take us aback or hurt us for a long time.

 

Pigmented Pandemic: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in COVID-19

Ubiquity of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has drastically changed the way we behave in almost every corner of life. One silver lining drawn into these unprecedented times is that many people are more appreciative of their families, friends, and communities. However, the odds of being in a social network that knows someone who has been diagnosed or died from COVID-19 are greater if you are a racial/ethnic minority living in the U.S. As such, this blog focuses on COVID-19’s disproportionate effect on communities of color and how a human rights approach can help address racial/ethnic health disparities.

Racial/ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable to reduced access of health services and the psychosocial stressors of discrimination which is why some argue that racism is a fundamental cause of health inequalities. These disparities are largely due to the disadvantaged economic and social conditions commonly experienced by many racial/ethnic minorities. Compared to Whites, racial/ethnic minorities are more likely reside in densely populated areas, live further from grocery stores and medical facilities, represent multi-generational homes, and be incarcerated. Additionally, racial/ethnic minorities disproportionately represent essential worker industries and have limited paid sick live. As a result, the living and working conditions for many racial/ethnic minorities put them at odds with threat of COVID-19.

Vestiges: Black American Health Disparities

Black Americans have disproportionate rates of COVID-19-related risk factors such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. As such, they are disproportionately dying of COVID-19 in many counties across the U.S. These disparities are even more alarming at the state-level. For example, in Georgia, 83% of all COVID-19 cases linked to a hospitalization were Black patients despite the community only representing a third of the state’s population. Also, in Michigan, Blacks represent 14% of the state’s population but 41% of the COVID-19 deaths. On a national level, Blacks (13% of the total population) represent 33% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations, while Whites (60% of the total population) represent 45% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Not only do Black Americans disproportionately live in many of the U.S.’s early COVID-19 hotspots (e.g., Detroit, New Orleans, and New York), they are also more likely than their White counterparts to experience poverty and have no health insurance. For centuries, the labor of Black Americans has been deemed “essential”, while the COVID-19 pandemic adds insult to injury. In the medical field, Blacks are less likely to be health professionals and more likely to represent personnel that cleans, provides food, or work in inventory. As such, Black essential workers who are not on the frontlines are more likely to acquire COVID-19 in the pernicious form of regularly contacting cardboard, clothing, or stainless steel. Thus, health disparities in the Black community demonstrate how the legacy of slavery and segregation thrive in the social and economic conditions of COVID-19.

Segmented: Latino American Health Disparities

Many Latinos in the U.S. have immigrant status and work in high-risk essential industries such as agriculture, food service, and health care. This largely explains why Latinos are up to three times more likely than Whites to be infected and hospitalized by COVID-19. These striking outcomes are compounded when considering that Latinos face other disproportionate hurdles such as inadequate communication resources and language barriers. Also, Latinos often socialize in “mixed status” immigrant networks which means those who are undocumented are not eligible for COVID-19 stimulus funding.

A recent Pew poll found that Latinos are almost 50% more likely than the average American to have been laid off or lost a job due to the pandemic. This is particularly salient to Latinos with a high school education or less and those ages 18-29. However, immigrant Latinos were less likely to lose their jobs but more likely to take a pay cut. As a result, the Latino experience during the COVID-19 pandemic is not only fraught with social and economic drawbacks, much like other communities of color, but complicated by the fact that their large immigrant population is ineligible for needed resources and often relied on in the essential workforce. These outcomes suggest the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 are uniquely challenging to Latinos, namely immigrants with limited access to resources that are often afforded to citizens.

Overlooked: Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Health Disparities

Often overlooked in the racial health disparities conversation are outcomes for Native Americans. Some state health departments (e.g., Texas) classify Native American COVID-19 statistics as “other” which ultimately dismisses the unique health profile of this underserved population. However, early statistics from Arizona and New Mexico suggest Native Americans represent a disproportionate number of COVID-19-related deaths and cases, respectively. Reports from health authorities in Navajo Nation, which is comprised of areas in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, indicate this community’s confirmed COVID-19 prevalence rate is the highest in the country, although they have a test rate higher than most U.S. states.

In March, the Seattle Indian Health Board requested medical supplies from local health authorities but instead received body bags and toe tags. This callous response demonstrates that local authorities in Washington state have actively devalued the lives of Native Americans during these trying times. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota have responded to their state’s negligence by refusing to end COVID-19 highways checkpoints across tribal land. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier argues that the checkpoints are the best thing the tribe has to prevent the spread of COVID-19 because they are only equipped with an eight-bed facility for its 12,000 inhabitants. The nearest critical care facility is three hours away.

Also overlooked are COVID-19 outcomes among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI). Early reports from California, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington indicate that NHPI have higher rates of COVID-19 when compared to other ethnic groups. A precursor to these outcomes is that NHPI have some of the highest rates of chronic disease which puts this demographic at higher risk of COVID-19. Much like other racial/ethnic minority groups, NHPI are more likely to work in the essential workforce and live in multi-generational households. Thus, these conditions allow COVID-19 to proliferate among NHPI enclaves.

Person with a protective mask preparing food with a front door sign that reads "No Mask, No Entry".
Thank you essential workers! Source: spurekar, Creative Commons

Health and Human Rights

Health is argued to be a fundamental human right. Ways this can be achieved is through creating greater access to safe drinking water, functioning sanitation, nutritious foods, adequate housing, and safe conditions in the workplace and schools. As such, health exists well outside the confines of the typical health care setting. However, the U.S. has yet to officially ratify the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which ultimately prevents the government from being held accountable for the socioecological influences that generate health disparities across racial/ethnic minority groups.

These health disparities are not debatable and even acknowledged by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In response, national efforts, state-level policies, and public health programs have successfully reduced these disparities but have only made modest progress. Thus, comprehensive, systemic, and coordinated strategies must be implemented to achieve health equity. Although solving this daunting task cannot achieved by the U.S. government alone. It must also incorporate non-profit and philanthropic on-the-ground efforts already seeking this goal as well as greater public awareness about the impact social and economic policies have on racial/ethnic health disparities.

Despite these discrepancies, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity for social change. More specifically, these unprecedented events bring greater light to issues such as poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and migration, all of which disproportionately affect communities of color. As a result, the ubiquity of COVID-19 has gathered people from every corner of the justice community to declare that health is a human right, thus bringing us one step closer to true equity and inclusion.

Coronavirus and Racism

informational poster on coronavirus and travel
Coronavirus Public Alert Oslo. Source: Annikdance, Creative Commons.

At this point, I’m sure almost everyone knows about COVID-19. With schools shutting down, conferences being cancelled, and travel being restricted, even those in uninfected areas are affected. However, while some of us are most worried about washing our hands and not touching our faces, some people have to worry about discrimination. Those of East Asian descent are being discriminated against all over the world, whether they’re from China or not, whether they’ve been in infected areas or not, whether they’re sick or not. COVID-19 is bringing out racism that has laid dormant, and, unfortunately, this isn’t the first time it has happened.

Historically speaking—especially before the scientific knowledge we have now—large outbreaks were blamed on minority groups. In 14th century Europe when the Black Death occurred, many looked for an answer, and when they couldn’t find an answer, they found a scapegoat: the Jews. They were seen as nonconformists by the Christian majority and were subsequently blamed for the outbreak that would be known as the Black Death. Many were tortured until they made false confessions and killed, and their persecution continued centuries later.

Since then, almost every major outbreak has illuminated underlying racism within the global community: when syphilis appeared in Renaissance Europe every country blamed another; Irish immigrants were blamed for the 1830 cholera outbreak; and Mexicans and others from Latin American countries were discriminated against during the Swine Flu epidemic in 2009.

Most recently, the Ebola outbreak of 2014 brought out racism towards those of African descent. College admission was denied to two Nigerian students to Navarro College, and a Guinean high school soccer player attending school in Nazareth, Pennsylvania was heckled by the opponent’s fans, who chanted “Ebola” at him. Americans hesitated to shake hands with people of African descent, whether they were American or not, and the US imposed a travel ban to and from West Africa.

What we are seeing now with COVID-19, is similar to what we saw during the 2003 SARS outbreak. While the Ebola outbreak illuminated prejudices towards African Americans, in 2003, those of East Asian descent, regardless of their nationality were discriminated against in certain areas. The three Chinatowns in Toronto, Canada were empty for weeks, East Asians were constantly asked if they were sick when no one else was, and they were avoided when they went out in public. In Canada, there is the stereotype of yellow peril that labels Asians as “unsanitary, lower-class, and alien.” This stereotype obviously found root in SARS and only exacerbated these prejudices.

picture of xenophobia in the dictionary
Spiritual Xenophobia. Source: George Ian Bowles, Creative Commons

Unfortunately, it seems like we haven’t learned from these numerous outbreaks, and the racism and xenophobia along with COVID-19 is way more widespread and way more violent. A man attacked an unidentified woman was attacked on the subway in New York, and reports say that the confrontation was a result of the Asian woman wearing a mask. Like in 2003, the discrimination is not restricted to people of Chinese descent: a man singled out a Thai American lady on a bus in LA. He gestured at her while saying that “every disease ever came from China.” Finally, in Indiana, two men of Asian descent were denied a room at a hotel and told that if they were Chinese, they’d be “picked up and quarantined for two weeks.” All of these attacks were before any deaths occurred in the US.

These incidents aren’t unique to the Untied States either. In London, a student from Singapore was attacked in a busy shopping area. While he was being attacked his assailants told him, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country.” He was left with fractures on his face, and he might need reconstructive surgery.

The racism that is emerging is not new, it has just been hidden. The fear that everyone is feeling is being redirected towards previous biases. The student from Singapore reported that he had been experiencing racist comments for the entire two years he had been studying in London. Because COVID-19 originated in China, the racism already present towards those of Asian descent has been exposed, and thanks to misinformation, it continues to grow. Fear has been shown to bring out the racism that already exists within people, not cause it.

In times like these it’s important to know the facts because that’s how we fight this discriminatory fear culture: Asians are no more likely to have COVID-19 than the rest of us. No one is any more likely to get COVID-19 because of their race or ethnicity. Despite the virus originating in China, there is no evidence Chinese people or Asians are predisposed to infection. Secondly, just because someone of Asian descent is wearing a mask, it does not mean they’re sick. In many East Asian cultures, it is normal to wear a mask year-round, not just when you’re sick.

It’s important to spread the facts. One of the biggest factors in discrimination is ignorance, so education is the best way to fight it. People are scared, and that is bringing out the prejudices they’ve kept hidden and might not even know they had. Additionally, catch and correct yourself when you think or do something with prejudice. Start improving our global community by improving your own thoughts.

COVID-19 is a pandemic, and it’s a serious infection, especially for the elderly and those with preexisting health conditions. However, the racism and xenophobia are spreading just as fast. As a global community, we shouldn’t add to the burden of this disease by using it as an excuse to be discriminatory.

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.

 

The Complex Practicality of Love

a picture of tiles which spell out love and hate
love/hate cubed still. Source: soft graphix, Creative Commons.

Excerpts from profound leaders, such as Gandhi, Mandela, and King, become useful during times of civil unrest. Their words seemingly echo the heart, inspiring both comfort and action for a moment. However, the full weight of their words remains unheeded and leave the daily lives of some who ferry them out as temporary mantras. One reason is lack of context. The words themselves are out of context because the remainder of the speech or sermon discarded, and the sacrifice of the lived life narrowed to a soundbite or repost. We will look at the legacy and words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. over the next few blog posts. The goal is to see if the words he spoke and life he lived find application in society today. This small project is in conjunction with the 54th anniversary of the March on Washington where Dr. King famously declared, “I Have a Dream.” Writers have looked across the depth of King’s work, found pieces with modern day applications, and have written powerful analyses.

Dr. King, on 17 November 1957, preached a sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, entitled, “Loving Your Enemies”. This sermon is the basis of this blog.

The sermon, based on Matthew 5 in the scripture, demands believers do four things when it comes to their enemies: love them, bless them, do good to them, and pray for them. King uses this sermon to cultivate a paradigm shift about the nature of love, while also breaking down its complexity into practical applications. He argues what seems like impractical idealism is practically realistic because of love. There is a recognition that loving an enemy—those who seek to defeat you–is difficult. Yet, as a mandate of Jesus, it is the individual’s Christian and moral responsibility to understand and live out this command. The first step in initiating and implementing love is self-analysis.

America has long prided itself on being a Christian nation and police officer of the world, often to the disparagement of allies and enemies alike. King asserts the element of bravado may arouse resentment and hostility by other nations when they view from afar the injustices taking place by the American government against her citizens. “There might be something within you that arouses the tragic hate response in the other individual. This is true in our international struggle… in spite of all the weaknesses and evils inherent in communism, we must at the same time see the weaknesses and evils with democracy” (44). He confesses democracy itself is the greatest conception of man, although its weakness lies in the trampling of “individuals and races with the iron feet of oppression” through mechanisms such as colonialism and imperialism. He considered the success of other ideologies, like communism (at the time), lay in the failure of democracy to hold to its principles and ideals (41-5). For America, as a nation of individuals, to love their enemies, an internal analysis of how we treat each other is required.

Many believe the present conversation about racism is a perpetuated by the media. The belief ‘if I don’t see racism in my community, then it must not actually exist’ creates a deniability that hinders the plausibility of justice and liberty for all. A united self-analysis could assist in the identification and acceptance of the knowledge that racial tension has been a factor in the American narrative since the pilgrims arrived on the shore. This acknowledgment will confirm the notion that the election and presidency of Barack Obama did not remove the established tension. The political platform of speaking to the “left-behind” sparked a populist movement that further exasperated the divide.

In a November interview with 60 Minutes, when informed of the horrific behaviors taking place around the country under the banner of “Trump’s America”, he denied liability and culpability, simply stating, “stop it.” He has recently come under fire for his duplicity on the attacks in Charlottesville. Some shouted the current president emboldened white nationalist ideology and the hate-filled attacks that took place during the campaigning process and have continued over the past seven months; others remain stoic in their support of him. However, last week as a measure of notice and concern for the rise of vitriol and violence, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) released its “Early Warning and Urgent Action Procedures” report. The report calls upon, urges, and recommends the US, a a State Party on the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to

“fully respect its international obligations…to not only unequivocally and unconditionally reject and condemn racist hate speech and racist crimes but to actively contribute to the promotion of understanding, tolerance, and diversity between ethnic groups; ensure that all human rights violations which took place in Charlottesville…are thoroughly investigated; the government… identify and take concrete measures to address the root causes of the proliferation of such racist manifestations; ensure the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly are not exercised with the aim of destroying or denying the rights and freedoms of others.

 

love
.love. Source: Jennifer Donley, Creative Commons

Second, look for the good as a countermeasure to each hate-filled thought. The decision to identify the good forces each of us to confront the “many occasions that each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality… there is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives” (45). King labels it ‘the isness versus the oughtness’: the recalcitrant South of our soul in revolt of the North of our soul. Synthesizing teachings from Ovid, Goethe, and the Apostle Paul, he concedes the division within us is the knowledge of good but the choice to do bad; a cry, that at the core, each of us has had at one point of another in life (45-6). In other words, choose radical empathy. Hate and discrimination extend beyond race; let us look at Muslims and Islamophobia as an example.

King declares hate removes the ability to see the “image of God” whereas love, challenges what the eyes see because “no matter what he does, you see the image of God there. There is an element of good that can never slough off” (46). A tenet of the US Declaration of Independence is states the Creator has endowed with inalienable rights to all humanity; this belief is also foundational to the Christian faith. Since the aftermath of 9/11, American Muslims are at the center of significant discrimination and hate. Harassed for their hijab and religious beliefs, the blanket assumption that each Muslim is a terrorist and actively threatening the wellbeing of Americans with sharia law and Islamic fundamentalism is contrary to the founding principles of this nation, and the principles of Islam itself. Even President Obama found himself on the receiving end of a birther conspiracy and dissention labeling him a secret Muslim. When considering this entrenched and unjustified hate, is it feasible to believe that reposting “hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that” automatically removes the racial, religious, and psychological injustices of innocent Muslims over the last 16 years? Does it absolve the character assassination of Obama? Does it remove the stigma unfairly applied to millions of Hispanics, specifically Mexicans, labelled rapist, drug dealer, or job stealer? Or any marginalized population in America?

Third, choose not to defeat your enemy, even if the perfect opportunity presents itself (47). The Greek language has several words for love, including eros, philia, and agape. Agape love looks for creative ways to win the one who hates over to love’s side by bridging the distance in the same way Christ did for the world in John 3:16. True love contains the refusal to defeat individuals; the goal of love is to defeat the system, which generated and perpetuated the distance that results in hate. Agape love seeks conversion, not defeat. King suggest when we act on agape love, we love “not because people are likable but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him…” (48-49). Love is a stronger feeling than like. Like is swayed by perception and attitudes; love, on the other hand, is consistent in nature due to its rooting in the soul. At the core of the soul, love allows for acceptance of the person while disagreeing with the behavior. Let us take the removal of Confederate monuments as an example.

love never ends from 1 Cor 13
love never ends. Source: Carmela Nava, Creative Commons

The removal of confederate symbols, for many, is an affront to their white heritage and an assault on the historical narrative of America. What many have failed to discern is that the erection and permanent reminder of the historical narrative of confederate whites in America is, and has always been, an affront to the heritage of Americans of African descent. Racial unity in the United States of America requires the truth that hate has existed at the core of this country, permeating through every institution. Therefore, the removal of and proposed relocation of the reminders is not to destroy white individuals, but rather initiate the destruction of the system upon which inequity, hate, racism, and discrimination originated. If we apply King’s three ideals for practical application of creative action through agape love to the monuments, to interact with marginalized communities, and to race relations, can they contribute to a narrative and paradigm shift?

  1. Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe (49). “Civilizations fail… if someone doesn’t have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world” (51). Someone must inject the strong element of love within the very structure of the universe (51).
  2. Hate is irrational. It destroys the personality of the hater, blinding them to the truth and distorting the vision of what is just (52). Hate destroys the hater and the hated.
  3. Love alone has a redemptive power (53). Hate removes the ability to bring about transformation.

The conversation around race produces responses that vary from “I’m not racist because I have black friends and coworkers” to “we are living in a post-racial America because we elected a black president”. However, manifestation of hate and discrimination is not merely about black and white. It is the denial of love’s full expression and love’s creative, redemptive, and transformative power over the human heart, mind, and embedded systems of oppression. King, in the conclusion of his sermon, explains three ways that the oppressed respond to the oppressor: violence, resignation, and massive nonviolent resistance based on the principle of love (56-60).

Love is the way Jesus did it.

Love is the way for Dr. King.

Is love the way for you? Love, like hate, is evident in alignment and actions.

 

 

 

Dear Dr. King: An Open Letter

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

Dear Dr. King,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir, I feel we no longer believe in values.

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

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

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

In the midst of conflicting emotions, we rise.

This is our decision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will overcome.

We can overcome.

Yes, we can!

 

Most sincerely,

Ajanet

THE BRIDGE PERSPECTIVE: HUMAN TRAFFICKING, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND RACE IN AMERICA

by Sunny Slaughter

It took me a minute to get my thoughts together on exactly what I wanted to say in this piece as a guest blogger. I rewrote this more than once, almost to the point of nausea thinking about whether I should not offend the host and its readers, but then I realized that truth can sometimes be a bitter pill to swallow, one drop can create a ripple effect, and this truth is my reality. Human Trafficking thrives off many things including silence. Human Rights is not always a matter of what is given, but rather what is demanded. Race and racism has never been about justice, but rather privilege and the privileged can never fully comprehend what they won’t ever fully experience.

picture of Stone Town Slave Trade. Source: Son of Groucho, Creative Commons.
Stone Town Slave Trade. Source: Son of Groucho, Creative Commons.

History does matter. The truth is I don’t personally like the term “modern-day slavery”. In fact, I’ve often wonder whose idea it was to coin this phrase in the first place?  “Slavery” and particularly in the U.S., was the legal victimization and oppression of an entire population of people based solely on race, that continues to have generational repercussions. Black women and girls were raped, beaten, held captive, violated, taken from their families, sold, mutilated and even murdered. They were forced to bare the children of their perpetrators, teach others how to endure, passed between the family and visitors of their owners, and publicly shamed by their own people. Men were stripped of their human dignity as they stood by and watched helplessly as the women and girls in their lives were violated, impregnated, taken and sold.  Even more poignant is the unspoken evil with regard to their own rape and violation. Blacks were forced to endure extreme and hostile conditions of labor in fields and industries without regard to age, gender, physical condition or mental capacity. The laws protected perpetrators, not victims, there were no shelters, services, support, training or promises of restitution. It was called slavery, not modern, just slavery.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand the premise behind the term “modern-day slavery” but it is disingenuous at best, to give weight to words in theory, without understanding or recognizing the ramifications of their historical context. I have long said that Human Trafficking is not new, it is slavery revisited, reinvested and renamed, but the only thing modern about it, would be the implication that now it is a problem, because the women and girls largely recognized as victims and survivors have European features. Laws are often changed when those who make them become uncomfortable with the societal ills that begin to impact them personally.

Nelson Mandela, said “The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed.

The perception of modern-day slavery When most people hear the word human trafficking, it is almost always in connection to sex trafficking and tends to immediately invoke a strong emotional reaction of horror and disbelief. The visual perception of women and girls, with European features and as very young, being held captive and forced to engage in acts of sexual depravity and violence is unthinkable. People become even more horrified to learn that this is not just happening in some third world country, but right here in the U.S..

News articles, press conferences and information of coordinated law enforcement agency operations regarding human trafficking, dominate the media about white women and girls reported as runaways or missing, being lured through on-line exploitation and rescued at big sporting events, in hotels and from street-based prostitution. According to Natalie Wilson, co-Founder of The Black and Missing Foundation, 64,000 black women, girls and others are currently missing in the U.S., and yet it fails to make the headlines and sometimes even falls below the radar for law enforcement. Even more disturbing, is the reality that “anti-trafficking groups and policy makers continue to ignore the impact that race and racism play in domestic sex trafficking efforts which do not recognize minority youth as victims.”

Documentaries, movies, conferences, printed material and social media awareness campaigns, continue to keep the focus on shelters and organizations that gather substantial support and funding, while making headlines by incorporating survivors who have become the experts leading the charge for change, but rarely, if ever, do they have a hue to their skin. Not that they don’t exist, because history and truth tells us, WE most certainly do. But once again, another crisis thrives off misdirection, false perception and coded language “evidence based practice”, which is fundamentally derived from data of marginalized minority populations that have been hi-jacked by the mainstream, and successfully hood-winked the masked and disengaged. The scriptures says “my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

However, this does not begin to accurately depict the totality of all that is happening. The bias of information reported does not include the stories of men and boys, transgender and gender non-conforming youth and adults who are homeless, missing from Child Welfare Services, have aged-out of foster care systems and who are being exploited or sometimes self-exploiting as a means of survival with no third party involved in the transactions. Prostitution, on-line sexual exploitation, child sexual exploitation, pornography and commercial exploitation are fueled by demand; however, they are also fueled and sustained by societal factors that have been managed in silos, with no regard to systems that are vulnerable for human trafficking schemes. There are vast populations of people, (veterans, formerly incarcerated, the elderly and disabled, single mothers, homeless and minorities) who are vulnerable for human trafficking schemes, that don’t typically capture the headlines, and go unrecognized because human trafficking has been pigeon-hold by what sells (sex) what can be sensationalized (sex and girls), and what is driven largely by emotion (white).

Unfortunately, people are less emotional and horrified when they hear the words labor trafficking often relying on the preconceived notion or misinformation, that these people (who are of foreign descent), and in the United States illegally, have willingly contributed to their own circumstances. The interweaving of issues like immigration, dreamers, confinement camps, and the belief that these people are stealing jobs from Americans and should be thrown out of the country, are heavily threaded in conversations of outrage without empathy or facts. The disregard for victims who are exploited in educational institutions through criminal justice systems, commercial business and major league sports, only scratches the surface of what is not always happening in silence, thereby making all the purported efforts to end human trafficking, splintered and unrealistic.

picture of Vigilia por la liberación de las niñas secuestradas en nigeria por Boko Haram
Vigilia por la liberación de las niñas secuestradas en nigeria por Boko Haram. Source: HazteOir.org, Creative Commons.

A global crisis Several years ago more than 200 black girls kidnapped in Nigeria sparked the global campaign “Bring Back Our Girls” individuals, groups and organizations across the racial, cultural and social spectrum galvanized and spoke publicly about what was happening. The viral campaign put black faces front and center in every form of media and print for the first time in the U.S., and bridged the nexus of human trafficking and global human rights. Unfortunately, according to photographer Ami Vitale, photos that she took on behalf of the Alexia Foundation were used and misrepresented as some the images of girls who were not actual victims of Boko Haram, nor from Nigeria. As someone who has been professionally engaged with international countries working on human trafficking and human rights issues for several years, I fully support the global response, but one must take everything into account when being responsive and responsible. Americans can quickly become horrified and outraged at what happens abroad and we can interject ourselves and posture about the money we give for the human rights atrocities. We can feel free to boast of our successes in politics and in a democracy which allows “our people” freedom of speech, choice and opportunity. But when the mirror turns inward, and we see our reflection from where we stand, as citizens of the greatest nation on earth, how dare we spin and spew with audacity, when we can neither reconcile our history of the slavery or even our attempts with modern-day slavery.

Paradigm shift  When you peel back the layers of structural inequality and violence, and identify the amount of injustices that contributes to marginalized populations becoming victims, you can recognize the nexus of human trafficking and human rights. Mandela said, “to deny people their human rights, is to challenge their very humanity”.  Systems embedded in structural violence only exacerbate opportunities of exploitation for marginalized populations. Organized and non-organized schemes swell out of the vulnerabilities known by the oppressor (trafficker, pimp, exploiter) and experienced by their victims (men, women, children); economic segregation, lack of access to quality education, health and mental health disparities and inequities, food gaps and disparities, cultural adaptation to concentrated poverty, generational trauma and violence, drugs gangs and groups, criminal behavior, discriminatory practices that alienate people and allow increased opportunities for victimization –bullying and much more.

Eleanor Roosevelt believed, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world…Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere…”.

These are not new, nor are they beyond our control. But until we are committed to doing something that will make a substantive difference for all people and not just the select few and privileged, nothing will ever change. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

More than ever before, it is critically important for individuals representing the vast diversity of human beings in this country (African Americans, Latino/Hispanic, Native American/Alaskan Native and others) to lead, not just serve organizations. To establish shelters that provide and develop programs through a culturally competent lens for the delivery of trauma informed services and care, that address the specific needs of marginalized victims. It is imperative that we demand seats in greater numbers at the tables where decisions and policies are made with respect to human trafficking legislation, services, support, and funding.  The time for one or two just won’t do, especially when the data used to garner attention and make the case for funding, comes from the very population that is being ignored. It is vital that existing shelters not be given a pass because it’s the name everyone recognizes, or it’s the only facility that serves human trafficking victims. We must raise the bar, not lower it or we risk contributing to the re-victimization victims, damaging the reputation of worthy organizations and institutions, and opening the door for predators to prey on unsuspecting individuals and businesses within our communities. People often think someone else has done their due diligence by vetting and verifying organizations and shelters are operating ethically and with integrity, but that may not always be the case. Human Trafficking is all about money, it just depends whose on the receiving end. Robert G. Ingersoll asserts, “nothing discloses real character like the use of power…”

Consider This  People are looking for ways to become involved but before one does, I suggest pausing to turn down the background noise of hype and rhetoric that drives funding, volunteerism and emotions. Take the time to become fully knowledge about the issue of human trafficking, “modern-day slavery”, that has had a law for less than 20 years, that even seasoned professionals working in judiciary, law enforcement and victim service providers are still trying to understand how to respond to.

Recognize human trafficking is the new hot topic and cause, and do your own due diligence before you attach your time, talents and finances. Many people may also consider their faith, and although faith based shelters (mostly Christian), are popping up everywhere, you should be clear, that not every victim will be, nor should any person be coerced into religious practice. When a person is coerced to consider faith as a means of freedom and shelter, you have just infringed on their human rights and dignity.

Human trafficking is about the exploitation of the vulnerable and often uninformed. Predators both men and women, don’t have a certain look, and their demeanor is often not what one might expect. The same can be said of some survivors, who claims have been proven to be false or called into question.  You must decide. So, before you dive in and dig deep consider this!

Before you volunteer, ask questions What safety protocols do you have in place for staff, volunteers, victims/survivors? Are background checks conducted on ALL staff, volunteers, victims/survivors? What type of security do you have in place? Fencing, locked gates, guards etc.? Is the location of your facility known to the public? What safety measures do you have in place when and if a person leaves your facility to ensure that others do not find out the location? Have you ever had an incident where someone who was not authorized came to your facility? What is your rate of turn-over in staff, volunteers and victims/survivors?

Before you give, dig deep Board members are responsible for ensuring the organization is following all laws, run ethically and with integrity. So, asking for and reviewing a board’s 1099’s (GuideStar Nonprofit database) to see the names of members and have long they have served is information that you would want to know. Frequent and constant turn over should raise concern. In fact, frequent and constant turn over in staff, volunteers and even location should also raise a concern. It could be an indication of instability, financial integrity, compliance failure and even ethical reliability. How much have board members personally invested in the organization? How many victims/survivors are you currently serving, and how many have they served since the program began? How many licensed, qualified and paid, full-time staff do they have working with victims/survivors? This is an important question as to capacity and especially when it comes to transition shelters that house victims/survivors 24-hours, and drop-in shelters who may provide services and support during specified times and day. A facilities failure to have “paid” staff providing on-going professional services and support should send up a red-flag. And while it may seem like an extra step, provide your questions in writing and ask for an authorized representative to provide the information in writing, giving you time to review the answers and ask any potential additional questions later. Remember, no matter how small you give or how often you give, you have the right to know where and how your money is invested and the right to ask additional questions outside of the standard information they provide. Any organization that cannot provide you with what you require, doesn’t deserve what they are requesting. While these do not begin to exhaust the amount of questions and concerns that one should consider, this is a start.

Lealholm Bridge. Source: Red Rose Exile, Creative Commons.
Lealholm Bridge. Source: Red Rose Exile, Creative Commons.

The bridge I started out by talking about my perspective on the bridge between human trafficking, human rights and race in America. By now given the scale and what some might consider diatribe on the complexities and nuances surrounding these three topics, you may have stopped several times, considered clicking off all together, found yourself agreeing with some and disagreeing with other analysis. However, if you’ve made it this far, and I hope that you did, I also hope that you have come to realize that this is not easy, the bridge is broken and damaged in far too many places, it’s has a history of being unsteady and sometimes unreliable, it’s weak and in need of repair, but it’s what we have, until we come together to build a new one. You have now done what many of us who work on issues that impact social consciousness do every day, keep going. When it’s hard, heavy and sometimes unbearable, when the lie takes our breath away and the truth rips at our heart, when darkness gives more to our movements, than light gives to our moments. When we are crippled with fear, and yet continue to crawl, because we are survivors not merely by circumstance, but most assuredly by choice. We are destined to fight for victims, demand human dignity for survivors and seek a measure of justice where injustice reigns most supreme. We cross the spectrum of race, culture and ethnicity, we ask not for favors, but for the opportunity to bring every person’s reality into focus, so that they may become free. This is the bridge and I’m doing my part to help others cross it.

Invest wisely in the matters of change!” (literally and figuratively) – Sunny Slaughter

 

Sunnetta “Sunny” Slaughter is the CEO/Principal consultant for Sunny Slaughter Consulting, LLC . Slaughter is  subject matter expertise on human trafficking and intersecting crimes for a national and international clientele and serves as a policy strategist, facilitator, law enforcement instructor, expert, TEDx speaker and subject matter expert, across a broad spectrum of human rights, social justice and civil rights issues.

 

Additional resources:

UNODC

US State Department Annual Trafficking In Persons Report