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.

Nathaniel Woods and Alabama’s Broken Justice System

As the world is reeling from the coronavirus outbreak and the constant inundation of new cases and increasing death rates, I wanted to call your attention to an important event that has largely been overlooked in the midst of the chaos. On March 5th, 2020, a man by the name of Nathaniel Woods was executed by the state of Alabama via lethal injection at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama. The 43 year old Woods was convicted because of his role in the fatal deaths of three Birmingham, Alabama police officers in 2004. Two entities could have stepped in to stop the execution: The Supreme Court and the governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey. The Supreme Court did delay the execution for three hours, but Kay Ivey refused to step in stating that she believed justice must be served in the name of the law. The execution of Nathaniel Woods was unjust and unfair in many ways and highlights the severe problems within the Alabama Justice system.

In the case of Nathaniel Woods, it is important to note that he was convicted of being an accomplice to the deaths of the three police officers. The man who confessed to the actual act of shooting and killing the police officers is Kerry Spencer. In fact, Spencer confessed to acting alone in the crime that landed both him and Woods on the Alabama death row. He testified this in his own trial and claimed to be acting in self-defense, highlighting that the shooting was not planned. During his confession, Spencer very clearly stated that Woods ran away from the scene and could not be considered an accomplice to the act. According to his former appellate attorney, Spencer may never be executed as Woods was. When Spencer was convicted in 2005, the jury that found him guilty recommended that he receive life in prison without parole, instead of the death penalty. A 2017 Alabama law that removed the power of the judge to override non-unanimous jury verdicts in the cases of the death penalty effectively protects Spencer. So why, when Spencer confessed to the deaths of the police officers, is Woods dead? A primary factor is that Wood’s jury never heard Spencer’s claim of self-defense. An even larger factor is that the Alabama death penalty laws are inherently flawed and unjust.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. Source: 187th Fighter Wing. Creative Commons.

The jury that convicted Woods reached a non-unanimous verdict of 10-2 recommending the death penalty. Alabama is one of two states in the United States that allows a non-unanimous verdict to result in the execution of a defendant. The death penalty laws within Alabama have been seriously criticized by civil right leaders and have been called unjust under the accusation that the criminal courts are unfairly biased against minorities. Despite Woods’ family and a few high profile figures including Martin Luther King III, the son of the late Martin Luther King Jr., and Kim Kardashian West contending that much of the evidence supported Woods’ innocence, neither Governor Kay Ivey nor the Supreme Court intervened on Woods’ behalf.

Woods’ case is unfortunately one in a long line of executions that highlights the many problems with the Alabama justice system. Before its abolishment in 2017, Alabama allowed judges to over-ride a unanimous jury in order to impose death sentences. While this is a step in the right direction, Alabama was the last state in the United States to make this change. Alabama has had 67 executions and 9 exonerations since 1976. This means that for every seven people executed, one has been exonerated. As of today, at least 107 of the death sentences in Alabama have been reversed and resulted in a reduced sentence or an exoneration. These statistics leave Alabama with a very high error rate. After 2010, Alabama has executed a series of defendants with questionable convictions: two defendants suffering from mental illness and three defendants whose judges over-rode the jury’s decision for life imprisonment in favor of the death penalty. Alabama also has no statewide public defender system and does not pay appointed attorneys enough, resulting in a lacking quality of counsel. Until 1999, capital trial attorneys were paid $40 per hour for work in-court and $20 an hour for work out-court. The out-court work compensation could only reach $1000. During this time, almost half of the current death row convictions occurred. Now, capital trial attorneys are paid $70 per hour with a cap of $2500, a rate that is noticeably below market rates. The lack of funding has resulted in a reduced quality of work and inadequate representation for defendants who are fighting for their lives.

Alabama state sign
Alabama state sign. Source: Shannon McGee, Creative Commons.

In January of 2020, the governor of Alabama appointed a panel to issue recommendations to address the problems of the Alabama prison system reported in a 2019 report released by the Justice Department. The report identifies the major problems with Alabama’s prison system. These problems included prisoners being assaulted and tortured on a routine basis with the knowledge and participation of the prison guards. Such abuse clearly violates the Eighth Amendment that protects against cruel and unusual punishment. It also included problems within prisons such as overcrowding, understaffing, a large presence of weapons and drugs, corruption, and raw sewage. Many corrections officers have been arrested and charged with crimes such as bribery and drug trafficking. In February of 2019 a judge found that the conditions for mentally ill patients within the prison system were unconstitutional. Since the beginning of 2019, at least 29 of 28,000 people died of preventable deaths in the Alabama prison system, a big contrast to the national average of prison homicides of seven per 100,000 prisoners. The recommendations provided by the state appointed panel have been called “common-sense” and do not address the more serious problems. If these problems are not fixed, the prison system will be operated by an outside party.

Prison
Bordeaux Prison. Source: photographymontreal, Creative Commons.

There are a significant number of problems within Alabama’s death penalty policy and within the Alabama prison system in general. There is no need to prove that a defendant was at least 18 years of age at the time of the crime within the state. There is insufficient protection for mentally ill defendants. And the Supreme Court is the only thing within Alabama that is preventing the executions of defendants with an IQ of below 70. Changing and reforming the broken Alabama death penalty system will be a long process, during which there is a possibility for many more innocent people to die. The decision to end the judicial override system in 2017 was a step in the right direction but not nearly far enough. Since then, more changes have been made to protect the already broken system, such as the 2018 decision to use nitrogen hypoxia, a method of suffocation, as a backup execution method. There is hope that the execution of Nathaniel Woods would push Alabama to make serious changes. However, this hope has not yet come to fruition. Some changes that would reform the system instead of protecting it would include: requiring a unanimous agreement from the jury to sentence people to death, requiring prosecutors to prove that the defendant was at least 18 years of age at the time of the crime, and acknowledge and end the racial bias that contributes to the death penalty practices. Ultimately, even after these changes are made, the most positive change to the Alabama death penalty system is to eradicate it once and for all.

How Covid-19 Exposes the American Healthcare System

When I studied abroad in Spain, I had many discussions with my host family comparing the United States and Spain. These conversation topics ranged from politics, social expectations, and the weather. One topic that my host mother was especially interested in is the American health care system in comparison to the Spanish health care system. Spain has a universal health care system while still allowing private insurance whereas the United States has purely private insurance. Neither system is perfect. However, as the Covid-19 crisis continues to progress it is important to understand how the crisis brings to light the many issues with the American health care system.

A woman in a mask.
Woman in Mask. Source: Patrice CALATAYU. Creative Commons.

It is a well-accepted fact that the United States was significantly less prepared for the impact of Covid-19 than most other developed countries. By any metric of pandemic preparedness, America is significantly behind the rest of the developed world in regard to medical supplies. The country has a severe lack of health care infrastructure within the system; even before the international pandemic, the United States had fewer doctors and hospital beds than the majority of other developed countries. The United States lacks in the number of doctors per capita with 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people. The comparable country average is 3.5 per 1,000 people, which shows just how behind America is. The United States also has fewer hospital beds per capita than the majority of other developed countries. To make matters worse, America has some of the highest rates of unnecessary hospitalizations. These are hospitalizations of patients with chronic conditions that have preventable treatment, making it unnecessary for the patient to be hospitalized. With a pandemic such as Covid-19, these unnecessary hospitalizations are diminishing. However, in the beginning of the crisis within the United States, unnecessary hospitalization significantly slowed down the efficiency of the health care system in caring for Covid-19 patients.

An important trend in the preparedness of the United States for Covid-19 is that the United States, with a private health care system, was noticeably less prepared than countries with universal health care systems. It is true that universal health care is not the perfect response to pandemic emergencies like Covid-19. This is shown by Italy, a country who has a federalized national health insurance program. Italy still needed to lock down and for a while had the highest case and death rate than any other country. However, countries like Italy with universal health care were able to begin recovery and slow the spread of the virus much quicker than those without.

a hospital
Hospital Beds. Source: Presidencia de la Republica Mexicana. Creative Commons.

As health providers have been working tirelessly to make the necessary changes to care for Covid-19 patients, private health insurance companies have been making very few changes to their processes. One system health care providers have been implementing is telemedicine, a program that allows patients to securely consult with their health care providers virtually therefore easing the burden on the infrastructure of the hospitals. Despite President Trump expanding provisions on telemedicine, private health companies are not required to pay health systems for telemedicine. At the same time, while some insurance companies have waived some Covid-19 related costs, out-of-pocket expenses are not waived resulting in patients needing to pay thousands of dollars. To put these costs in perspective, in 2018 the average amount for a patient covered by private insurance admitted to the hospital for a respiratory condition similar to coronavirus was $20,000. Additionally, as hospitals across the country prepared for an influx of Covid-19 patients, stable patients without the virus were forced to stay in the hospital beds. These patients, who should have been moved to a rehab facility or released, were taking up unnecessary space due to private insurance companies taking multiple days to authorize the next steps for each patient. This has been a known delay in hospitals before the pandemic but now it is a delay that has dire consequences.

Quite possibly the biggest problem in the American health care system is cost. This problem is unique to the United States. Citizens are required to pay higher out-of-pocket costs than those in most other countries, leading Americans to forgo their health care in order to save money. Reports have shown that 33 percent of Americans reported a cost-related barrier to receiving care. This is in comparison to the 7 percent who reported the same in Germany. In 2019, a study showed that 33 percent of Americans also reported postponing medical care due to the cost of that care. It is only in the United States that citizens are risking thousands of dollars in order to seek help in a medical crisis like the one posed by Covid-19. A major concern across the world is that Americans will not seek care for corona symptoms due to the high costs of healthcare in the United States and the high amount of people without insurance in the country. This will spread the disease significantly faster than officials within the country would like to believe.

man with supplies
Medical Supplies. Source: Navy Medicine. Creative Commons.

As the Covid-19 cases rise in number across the country, an unusually high number of African Americans in the United States have been infected with Covid-19. This news, while terrible, is unfortunately not shocking and highlights the many racial inequalities in the health care systems. Coronavirus does not have a racial factor but the structural racism within the American health care system is evident. African Americans are over-represented in many essential workplaces making the population more at-risk than other populations. At the same time, African American populations are less likely to have health insurance coverage leading to a disproportionate number to not receive the necessary help from the health care system. There also exists a racial empathy gap that disproportionately affects African Americans and Hispanics within the United States. A racial empathy gap is when medical professionals show less empathy and sympathy to African American patients who are experiencing pain. Human rights workers have been working on mandatory reviews to ensure that health workers are providing an equitable form of treatment for minority patients. However, due to a bias developed and enforced by societal constructs of different races, there exists a higher risk for minority populations within the American health care system.

A few examples of problems within the American health care system that have been exacerbated by Covid-19 are highlighted above. While officials within this system and within the government must work to make necessary changes, it is also important to recognize the lifesaving and tireless health care workers who work within the imperfect system. Covid-19 has shown the country how necessary health care workers are. Nurses, doctors, surgeons, and so many other health care providers have dedicated an immense number of hours to fighting Covid-19. These individuals who are working to save lives within the corrupt health care system are extremely important and we must recognize their hard work while we work to make the system fairer and more equitable.

 

The Coronavirus in the Middle East: Its Impact on Sectarianism and Refugees

The coronavirus has spread to virtually every country of the world, but due to differences in privilege and access to resources, many countries are unable to adequately address this pandemic as well as other countries are. However, for countries in the Middle East, in addition to these differentials, the pandemic has also further exacerbated many preexisting problems that the region faces, namely political, economic, and social unrest. While this outbreak has had ramifications on several facets of life in the Middle East, this blog post will be focusing on the outbreak’s impact on sectarianism and the refugee crisis.

An image showing Shia Muslims visiting a shrine.
Shrine visitation. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Sectarian Conflict

The Middle East is marred by the Sunni-Shia conflict, and geopolitics are heavily influenced by this divide. Because of this, the divide is often invoked when something disastrous occurs in the region, with each side blaming the other, and the coronavirus outbreak has proven to be no exception. Although the coronavirus has spread to all Middle Eastern countries, Iran, a Shia-majority country, has been disproportionately impacted; as of March 31st, Iran has had 44,605 coronavirus cases and 2,898 deaths, making it one of the countries with the most cases in the world. Further, Iran has now been identified as the source of spread to other Middle Eastern countries; some of the earliest identified cases in the Middle East were all of people who had recently traveled to Qom, one of the holiest cities in Iran. Despite the fact that people were aware of the outbreak in Iran, visitations to holy shrines in Iran were not discouraged, and people continued to travel to these holy sites. Any large gatherings during this time pose a risk, but shrine visitations are especially risky; many people engage in practices at shrines, such as kissing and touching the shrines, that lead to an increased likelihood of spreading. Since the outbreak is speculated to have spread from Qom, the city where one of the holiest shrines, the shrine of Sayyida Fatima al-Zahraa, is located, it is not unlikely that transmission did occur like this.

Because the spread has been identified as coming from Iran, many Sunni-majority countries in the Middle East have used this as an opportunity to justify further prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims. For example, Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia who recently traveled to Iran for shrine visitations were labeled as traitors, leading some to call for their execution. In other countries, such as Lebanon, preexisting sectarian conflict has only gotten worse. It has been claimed that the first case in Lebanon came from Iran, leading many to blame the Shia Muslim population of Lebanon. Further, the Lebanese government continued to allow flights from Iran up until mid-March. Due to this, many have criticized Iran’s influence in Lebanon, specifically its influence on the government.

 

An image showing a Syrian refugee camp.
A Syrian refugee camp. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Refugees in the Middle East

There have been refugees in the Middle East for the past several decades, but the number of refugees significantly increased after the Arab Uprising in 2011. Because refugees often live in destitute conditions, the coronavirus outbreak would prove to be disastrous for them. Once a case of the coronavirus reaches a refugee camp, there will be little to nothing that can be done to stop its spread; large families live within the same tent, usually only five feet apart from other nearby tents. For this reason alone, social distancing is not an option for refugees living in camps, highlighting the intrinsic privilege of others’ ability to practice and call for social distancing. In addition to this problem, refugees also do not have access to the resources necessary for sanitization, namely due to lack of access to clean water. Further, there are often no established healthcare systems within refugee camps, making it difficult for them to access resources that would be needed to aid infected individuals. Even if refugees were to seek health care outside of the camps, it is not guaranteed that they would have access to this care. For example, many refugees are internally displaced in war-torn countries where hospitals have been demolished and those that are still standing are severely lacking in resources. Further, even when refugees resettle in other countries with established health care systems, it is not incorrect to assume that nationals of that country will be given preference over refugees for treatment and access to resources.

Despite the scarcity of resources and bleak outlook for refugee camps, measures have been taken to ensure that refugees are protected as best as they can be from the coronavirus. For example,  many refugee camps have been sanitized with anti-bacterial spray. Certain organizations, such as Islamic Relief, have donated supplies, including rubbing alcohol and medicine that treats certain symptoms of the coronavirus, to ensure that if an outbreak does occur within a camp, there are some necessary resources available. Finally, the UNHCR has appealed governments for $33 million in funds to provide refugees access to hygiene kits, protective gear, and sanitary water, among other things, that could help deter the spread of the coronavirus.

Recently, an IHR Intern wrote a blog about racism and discrimination that arises during outbreaks such as this one. While Asians have largely been victims to racism during this period, in the Middle East, Iran and Shia Muslims have been targeted, highlighting that people do indeed try to blame such events on others when, in reality, there is no one that should be blamed. Further, times like this also highlight the level of privilege many of us live in; while we have the privilege to access resources and to distance ourselves from one another, other groups who lack such privileges, namely refugees, cannot practice any of these things. Thus, while we are all impacted by this outbreak, it is important to recognize that many people, in addition to worrying about the coronavirus, face other obstacles during this time as well, and these groups should be kept in mind.

What is Homelessness and Why is it an Issue?

Homelessness is defined as “the state of having no home.” In the 1950s, the idea of homelessness was just that, an idea. About “70% of the world’s population of about 2.5 billion people,” lived in rural areas. Today, however, it is estimated that at least 150 million people across the world are homeless with a total of 1.6 billion people lacking adequate or appropriate housing. OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) data also ranks the United States (U.S.) as 11th behind Australia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, and others, in terms of homelessness as a percent of the total population in 2015. What is particularly interesting about these statistics is that the first two, Australia and Canada, have plans to address homelessness, with the latter two, Germany and Sweden, not having any type of national plan.

According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, an estimated 553,000 people experienced homelessness on a single 2018 night. In terms of homelessness by state, California ranked highest with a raw amount of 129,000 people and North Dakota ranked the lowest in raw count with 542 homeless people through a point-in-time count. Compared to 2008, about 664,000 people in the United States had experienced homelessness on a single night. When looking at California in 2008, about 158,000 people, more than a sixth of the total, had experienced some type of homelessness.

Definitions:

Sheltered Homelessness: referring to those who stay in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens.

Unsheltered Homelessness: referring to those whose primary nighttime location is a public or private place not designated for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for people (streets, vehicles, or parks).

Chronically Homeless Individual: referring to an individual with a disability who has been continuously homeless for one year or more or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years where the combined length of time homeless in those occasions is at least 12 months.

A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City.
A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City. Source: Jacobin. Creative Commons.

During December of 2017, “Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty,” visited California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and compiled his findings into an associated report. Here, he introduces the U.S. as one of the world’s richest societies, a trendsetter, and a sophisticated place to live. After such praise, he contrasts the country with his own observations and data gathered from OECD. He also indirectly attacks the U.S., going so far as to mention that “the strict word limit for this report makes it impossible to delve deeply into even the key issues,: showing the immensity of the issues at hand that affect those living in the U.S., known as a “land of stark contrasts.”

In the same report, Alston also noted the at-the-time recent policies that the U.S. had enacted, such as tax breaks and financial windfalls (a sudden, unexpected profit or gain) for the wealthy, reducing welfare benefits for the poor, eliminating protections (financial, environmental, health, and safety) that benefit the middle class and the poor, removing access to health insurance for over 20 million people, increasing spending on defense, and many more. One of the solutions proposed to such an important issue was to decriminalize being poor.

However, leaders of cities and states may think otherwise.

A view of Bunker Hill, Los Angeles
Bunker Hill as seen from Los Angeles City Hall. Source: English Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

For example, Los Angeles and other central cities are constantly seen with “giant cranes and construction” building towers and other magnificent architecture solely to “house corporate law firms, investment banks, real-estate brokerages, tech firms” and other ‘big-money’ companies. However, in those same cities, when looked closely, can make out “encampments of tattered tents, soiled mattresses, dirty clothing, and people barely surviving on the streets.” Alston even goes so far as to call out Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for allowing ticketing $300 to have an encampment rather than developing affordable housing for the many people unable to pay for their homes and places of residence. This exacerbates the living conditions of those charged because they are struggling to make necessary payments on time, such as healthcare, food, water, and some sort of shelter, be it a tent or living out on the street. This demonstrates that criminalizing homelessness presents an ethical issue that drags people into an endless cycle of poverty.

“Criminalizing homelessness does not solve the problem. It makes suffering more brutal and drives people living on the streets further into the shadows.” – Human Rights Watch

Looking closer to home, the 2019 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress suggests Alabama has seen progress in lowering the homelessness rate. The report ranked Alabama having the “third-lowest rate of homelessness in the country,” but also having “one of the highest rates of unsheltered homeless youth.”

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in 2018, Alabama had 3,434 people experiencing homelessness through a community count. Below is a breakdown of each category for homelessness statistics in Alabama:

  • Total Homeless Population: 3,434
  • Total Family Households Experiencing Homelessness: 280
  • Veterans Experiencing Homelessness: 339
  • Persons Experiencing Chronic Homelessness: 540
  • Unaccompanied Young Adults (Aged 18-24) Experiencing Homelessness: 158

 

  • Total Number of Homeless Students: 14,112
  • Total Number of Unaccompanied Homeless Students: 583
  • Nighttime Residence: Unsheltered: 675
  • Nighttime Residence: Shelters: 735
  • Nighttime Residence: Hotels/motels: 681
  • Nighttime Residence: Doubled up: 12,021
A homeless student, sitting on the sidewalk against a wall, reading a book. The student has a small bag of items beside him and a sign that says, "Homeless."
Not all students look forward to summer vacation. Source: FAMVIN. Creative Commons

Looking at Birmingham, October 2018 was quite a divisive time due to disagreements and allegations for discrimination against Firehouse Ministries who were aiming to receive support from the city in order to build a new Firehouse Shelter. These allegations had caused the city council to vote down said plan, causing Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin to criticize such an action, stating:

“We can’t interject race into every situation. Homelessness is not an issue we should be talking about race.” — Randall Woodfin, in an interview with WBRC Fox 6 News.

However, racial disparities still exist when looking into the homeless population. According to a 2018 report from National Alliance to End Homelessness, African Americans “make up more than 40% of the homeless population, but represent 13 percent of the general population.”

Those disparities could potentially be due to “centuries of discrimination in housing, criminal justice, child welfare and education.” They are also influenced by criminal records, which African Americans are more likely to have, leading to difficulties finding housing or a job to pay for housing.

The USICH has proposed a variety of solutions that could potentially reduce the rate of homelessness if not put an end to the issue once and for all. These solution span a wide range of projects and solutions, some listed below:

  • Housing First: Providing people with support services and community resources to keep their housing and not to become homeless again.
  • Rapid Re-Housing/Affordable Housing: Helping individuals quickly “exit homelessness and return to permanent housing” while also being affordable to even those living in deep poverty. Access must also be available according to need.
  • Healthcare: Having healthcare would allow these households to treat and manage those conditions that limit them from getting a job in the first place.
  • Career Pathways: Providing accessible job trainings and employment for those living without a home.
  • Schools: Providing children with schooling can be a sign of safety and connections to a broader community.

Are there any bills that have been introduced into Congress to mitigate homelessness?

Yes, H.R. 1856, titled “Ending Homelessness Act of 2019.” Introduced in March of 2019, this bill, sponsored by Representative maxine Waters of California aims to create a 5-Year Path To End Homelessness, among other things. Currently, this bill has yet to be passed in the House of Representatives before going to the Senate and President.

Homelessness is a Human Rights Issue. The lack to address it is a Violation of stated International Human Rights.

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner, homelessness has “emerged as a global human rights crisis,” particularly in nation-states where resources are available to address it.

In response to questions asked by the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing in 2016, Leilani Farha, the U.S. has NOT characterized homelessness as “a human rights violation by U.S. courts.” However, certain ordinances enacted by cities have been scrutinized, such as criminalizing people experiencing homeless that sleep in public areas, partially due to the lack of shelter space. Supreme Court case Bell v. City of Boise et al addressed this very issue by determining that convicting someone of a crime due to status is in violation of the United States Constitution, particularly the Eighth Amendment, stating that convicting “a person of a crime based on his or her status amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Simply by criminalizing homelessness through fines or through time in prison, police and other authority bodies are unconstitutionally affecting those who do not the resources to live a life of stability.

In order to end homelessness, cooperation between public and private bodies are necessary so that equitable access to housing and workforce opportunities for those who’ve been disenfranchised. Following recommendations by the USICH can help relieve many of the problems that many communities, both urban and rural, have to face while also refraining from criminalizing homelessness.

Under Pressure: How Court Debts Inform Racial and Wealth Inequality

On Thursday, November 7th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Students for Human Rights at UAB to present representatives from Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. During their lecture and discussion with audience members, they addressed how racial inequality and systemic poverty influence court debts as well as what we can do to change the status quo.

Alabama Appleseed, and its 17 other offices across North America, work at the intersection of the legal system and systemic poverty. Helping to confront a system that harms impoverished and minority communities by placing them in an endless cycle of punishment, Alabama Appleseed employs a research and policy reform approach to highlight such inequalities.

They first addressed this issue by covering the racial wealth gap which can be told through the legacy of slavery, convict labor, redlining, school segregation, and hiring discrimination that has economically disadvantaged many communities of color, namely Black Americans. Thus, in present day, the poorest 20% of Whites have an average $15,000 in wealth, while the poorest 20% of Blacks have a mere average $100 in wealth.  As a result, receiving a fine can increase existing household costs, develop exorbitant interest rates, and even land one in jail if unpaid, meaning Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the looming threat of court debts.

In response, Alabama Appleseed sought to give this issue greater context by employing a statewide study, titled Under Pressure, which includes personal experiences with court debts from 980 Alabamians representing 41 counties  (56% of respondents were Black). Some of the main findings were:

  • 83% gave up necessities like rent, food, medical bills, car payments, and child support, in order to pay down their court debt
  • 50% had been jailed for failure to pay court debt
  • 44% had used payday loans to cover court debt
  • 80% borrowed money from a friend or family member to cover their court debt
  • Almost 2/3 received money or food assistance from a faith-based charity or church that they would not have had to request if it were not for their court debt
Alabama Appleseed presenting Under Pressure. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

They went on to address some anecdotal accounts such as people paying someone else’s court debt even though having their own and missing court dates that were scheduled while incarcerated. These findings suggest that impoverished and minority communities in Alabama must maneuver around isolated court systems that don’t communicate with one another, which further places them into a cycle of poverty and looming punishment. Furthermore, Alabama has the 5th highest incarceration rate in the world and is currently facing a 33% rate of employment in the prison system. This means that our criminal justice system not only disadvantages poor and Black Alabamians, but they are the ones funding these inequalities through a shadow tax system.

Thus, Alabama Appleseed offered a handful of recommendations for state lawmakers to address this system of injustice:

  • Eliminate court costs and fees, and scale fines to each person’s ability to pay
  • Fully fund courts from Alabama’s state budget
  • Send revenue from all court debt to the state General Fund
  • Create a mechanism for appeal and ensure folks have access to counsel throughout the process
  • Prohibit the suspension of drivers’ licenses except in instances of unsafe driving
  • Eliminate Failure to Appear warrants when the individual is incarcerated
  • Change the law that currently denies voting rights to people who are too poor to pay their court debt
  • Reclassify the possession of small amounts of marijuana as a civil infraction with fines connected to the defendant’s ability to pay

As demonstrated, Alabama’s criminal justice system is a harvest ground for racial and wealth inequality. However, addressing such concerns at the community-level is one way that you can participate in real change. You can do so by communicating with your local representative about overturning the “Three Strikes Law”, pressuring Regions Bank to divest from the private prison industry, and joining Alabama Appleseed to be informed about pending legislation.

Facing the threat of missing rent, losing meals, and even being incarcerated is no way to live, particularly for those who already experience a list of other disadvantages. For this reason, it’s about time we put our lawmakers and local businesses under pressure.

“Who Are You?” Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five Shares His Story

On Tuesday, October 8th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside UAB’s Office of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, Student Multicultural & Diversity Programs, and College of Arts & Sciences to present criminal justice advocate Dr. Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated 5 (formerly known as the Central Park 5). During his conversation with UAB’s Dr. Paulette Patterson Dilworth, they discussed his time incarcerated, race in the 21st century, and the recent Netflix special When They See Us, among other related topics.

In April 1989, following the sexual assault of a white woman in New York City’s Central Park, five young Black and Hispanic youth were convicted for this heinous crime despite inconsistencies in DNA evidence. In the process of weathering the media storm and pressure from local authorities, Salaam claims he had a “spiritual awakening” that was being shaped by the hands of God. About six months into his bid, Salaam was debating if he was doing time or if time was doing him, when an officer approached him and asked, “Who are you?”. After giving the officer his full name, the officer replied, “I know that. You’re not supposed to be here. Who are you?”. This moment changed his entire trajectory because Salaam realized he was born with a purpose. As a result, Salaam earned a college degree while in prison and suggested this accomplishment means he could do anything. He argues that many in the public eye were looking at him with hatred because they saw his future self, an educated Black man fighting for racial and criminal justice.

After serving nearly seven years for a crime he did not commit, a confession and DNA match from Matias Reyes in 2002 allowed the release and exoneration of Salaam as well as Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise. Aside from Salaam and Wise’s acquaintanceship, the Exonerated Five did not know each other. Due to police profiling, they were rounded up by NYPD, interrogated, and pressured to confess to false narratives about one another, thus having to fight individually for themselves as well as their families. The Exonerated Five never discussed these events among each other because they assumed everyone had the same experience. However, upon a pre-release screening of When They See Us, which Salaam claimed was a “traumatic experience”, the Exonerated Five had the opportunity to process the series of events that would bind them together forever.

 

Dr. Salaam speaking with Dr. Dilworth. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights
Dr. Salaam speaking with Dr. Dilworth. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

 

Although, the story does not end here. As fate would have it, then future U.S. President Donald Trump actively participated in promoting the execution of the Exonerated Five through an ad in local newspapers. Furthermore, Salaam’s claim that President Trump is responsible for “cosigning folks in Charlottesville” suggests our current cultural, social, and political environment encourages racial and criminal injustice. In response, echoing Carter G. Woodson’s treatise “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” Salaam exclaimed that history is trained and taught into a people. As a result, people of color, namely Black Americans, can become so destroyed by a system that they don’t want to participate. Although, Salaam said such a position suggests, “Non-participation is participation.” Thus, we, ourselves, are the answer.

This brings us to how we, particularly white folks who have orchestrated institutions to disadvantage people of color, can be the change we want to see. As Salaam suggests, “The system is working the way it was designed.” Thus, systemic issues disproportionately affecting people of color, such as police profiling, generational poverty, underfunded schools, and weakened voting rights, must immediately be addressed and reformed. Eradicating these injustices will unlikely be in in our lifetime, although current efforts by Black Lives Matter, Innocence Project, The Sentencing Project, and Woke Vote, among many others, shine a light on what we have, and can, accomplish.

Who are you?

Book Review: White Fragility by Robin Diangelo

by Mary Johnson-Butterworth

I recently read White Fragility by Robin Diangelo. Diangelo is an academic, lecturer, and author and has been a consultant and trainer on issues of racial and social justice for more than twenty years.  She formerly served as a tenured professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University.” I picked up the book because I am trying to understand and eradicate any micro-aggressions directed toward people of color on my part and to woman up to my own racism.  Identifying as both white and fragile puts the onus for my education and change on friends and acquaintances of color, and I wanted to take responsibility for my own rehabilitation.

DiAngelo conceived of white fragility from years of facilitating diversity training where “good” white people became incensed when faced with any suggestion of racist identity in their own lives. How does it connect to racism? Racism, the oppression of a dominant group by a targeted group based on skin color, is a complex, multi-layered structure—not an event. “Racism hurts (even kills) people of color 24-7.  Interrupting it is more important than my feelings, ego, or self-image,” writes Diangelo.  She also maintains that, when it comes to racism in the U.S., no choir exists to whom we can preach.  Regardless of our upbringing as white people, we all are indoctrinated by a potent combination of entitlement, individualism, comfort, safety, normalcy, and supremacy that other races cannot access.  Diangelo suggests that a person of color may refuse to wait on me in a store, but I still have the power, as a white person, to manipulate which neighborhood she can choose and, therefore, the caliber of schools her child attends, hence debunking the existence in our society of reverse racism.

*Lack of understanding of what racism is

*Seeing ourselves as individuals, exempt from the forces of racial socialization

*Failure to understand that we bring our group’s history with us, that history matters

*Assuming everyone is having or can have our experience

*Lack of racial humility, and unwillingness to listen

*Dismissing what we don’t understand

*Lack of authentic interest in the perspectives of people of color

*Wanting to jump over the hard, personal work and get to “solutions”

*Confusing disagreement with not understanding

*Need to maintain white solidarity, to save face, to look good

*Guilt that paralyzes or allows inaction

*Defensiveness about any suggestion that we are connected to racism

*A focus on intentions over the impact

Aversive racism allows us white people to remain racist and still feel good about ourselves by rationalizing segregation in schools as the need for “good schools,” and the overabundance of whites in the workplace “because they [people of color] don’t apply.” White folks get away with the use of coded language such as urban, underprivileged, diverse, sketchy, and good/bad neighborhoods to belie their racist underpinnings.  The author relays a story of a white friend who called to say they had a mutual friend who bought a ridiculously cheap house in a New Orleans neighborhood, but her friend felt the need to buy a gun. When Diangelo responded, “I assume it’s a black neighborhood,” her friend said, “Yes, you get what you pay for.  I’d rather pay $500,000 and live somewhere where I wasn’t afraid.” The woman never used the word “black,” but the implication was crystal clear.  Toni Morrison alludes to “race talk,” designed to denigrate people of color, elevate white people, and keep in place the “us and “them” dichotomy.

While facilitating a workshop, the author questioned an African American man about what he would think if white people risked upsetting their white racial equilibrium to graciously receive feedback, reflect, and work to change their behavior. His immediate answer, “It would be revolutionary.”  “However, we aren’t likely to get there if we are operating from the dominant worldview that only intentionally mean people can participate in racism.” Color blindness (“I don’t see color.”) and color celebration (“I have a good friend who’s black.”) often exempt white people from examining the racism impacting them daily.  Most of us are taught to be kind, but “unless that kindness is combined with clarity and the courage to name and challenge racism, this approach protects white fragility and needs to be challenged.”  “An honest accounting of our racist patterns is no small task given the power of white fragility and white solidarity, but it is necessary.”

According to Diangelo, studies show that white children develop a sense of white superiority as early as preschool. Although many millennials profess to living in a postracial society, when 626 white college students at 28 colleges across the U.S. were asked to keep journals of racial images, racial issues, or what they understood to be racist behavior for 6 to 8 weeks, over 7500 blatantly racist comments and actions committed by family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers were recorded.

White fragility can translate as bullying when a racial point is made by a person of color, and a white woman cries needing comfort or all of the energy goes to soothe or assuage the guilt of the white people in the room.  The salient point is lost to white fragility, and nothing is learned.

Diangelo states that, in the U.S., anti-blackness is particularly prevalent, and white people’s history, as well as their present, is tied to abuse and devaluation of black bodies.  Slavery, lynchings, police shootings of unarmed black men, the school to prison pipeline, even the dissing of a black man who “takes a knee,” reflect a White disdain for African Americans in this nation.   Diangelo poses that it is a very different narrative to hail Jackie Robinson the first black man allowed by white people to play in the majors, rather than the first black man to have the skill to play in the majors.

Cover-to-cover, White Fragility is full of messages that are difficult for us white people to hear. I am indicted as a racist just by virtue of the society in which we live. We, White people, have the responsibility to transform our guilt into action.  We must move past defensiveness, discomfort, the conscious unawareness of our role in overt or often covert racism, and the way we look to others.  We must guard against allying with fellow racists in solidarity, forgetting that we are unconsciously invested in racism, refusing feedback from or not listening to people of color, and staying insulated in our cocoon of white equilibrium.  If we find ourselves open to shoving our white fragility aside, we may accomplish the following:

*Minimize our defensiveness.

*Demonstrate our vulnerability.

*Demonstrate our curiosity and humility.

*Allow for growth.

*Stretch our worldview.

*Ensure action.

*Demonstrate that we practice what we profess to value.

*Build authentic relationships and trust.

*Interrupt privilege-protecting comfort.

*Interrupt internalized superiority.  

Robin Diangelo offers us white folks the insights and the tools to explore and, with hard work, to overcome our white fragility in favor of transformation and enlightenment.

 

Mary Johnson-Butterworth, age 69, has been a social justice activist most of her adult life.  She has facilitated social justice workshops for middle and high school students throughout the Birmingham area and beyond with the YWCA of Central Alabama, the National Conference for Community and Justice, the National Coalition Building Institute, and YouthServe.  Mary has also been on staff at a residential YWCA diversity camp, Anytown Alabama, for 22 years and has facilitated trainings for corporate entities, Leadership Birmingham, and Project Corporate Leadership.  She has recently discovered the power of poetry to transform her own life and the lives of impacted listeners.

The Re-segregation of Schools

**Today is the 64th anniversary of the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision. The decision acknowledged and established the unconstitutionality of the notion “separate but equal”. This blog is a repost from the fall. 

The eraser ends of a pile of pencils.
Back to School. Source: Mark Bonica, Creative Commons

What do you think of when you hear the word “segregation”? You probably flash back to your high school history class, when you learned about the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., bus boycotts, the Little Rock Nine, and Ruby Bridges. Segregation is something we generally think of in the past-tense, as a phenomenon that occurred throughout much of history but ended in the 1960s. A common assumption is that these issues of racial discrimination and segregation on a systematic level are over. However, this is not the case. Schools in the United States seem to be going through rapid re-segregation. A reminder of our nation’s shameful past of dehumanizing and oppressing people on the basis of skin color, the idea is a hard pill to swallow. Many people find it difficult to come terms with our history and find it even more difficult to admit that serious issues related to race are still present in our society.

In 2010, Jefferson County opened Gardendale High School, one of the few high schools in the county that were actually well-integrated. By 2012, the campaigning for the secession of the schools of Gardendale from the district school system had begun. The concept of city school systems has grown increasingly popular in recent years. Many communities believe that it would be best if the taxes from their local areas only contribute to local schools. They have made claims that they believe that this would greatly improve the academic success of schools. In the case of Gardendale, these claims are not well supported. Creating a new school system would actually make it more difficult for students to attend the Jefferson County International Baccalaureate school (JCIB), which has been ranked by the Washington Post as the best school in Alabama and the seventeenth best school in the country. In order to attend JCIB, students would have to pay $1,500 in out-of-district tuition. In 2013, the Gardendale City Council voted to create a separate school system, and a new property tax was implemented later that year in order to fund the new system. An all-white school board and superintendent were then appointed for the system.

However, there were still obstacles for the new school system. Jefferson County is still under the desegregation order from the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Gardendale would have to receive approval from Birmingham’s federal court in order to secede from the district. There were three main forces that all agreed that allowing Gardendale to secede would create significant problems for the efforts to continue desegregation. Representing the black children of Jefferson County was Legal Defense Fund Lawyer, Monique Lin-Luse. The Obama administration had involved the revitalizing of the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Jefferson County had just hired a new superintendent who was dedicated to desegregation. Though the residential area of Gardendale is 88% white, the schools are 25% black due to the busing of students from North Smithfield. For the majority of residents who want a completely separate school system for the city, the goal is to have a system that contains only students who live in Gardendale. Though this would not completely remove all of the black students, it would seriously reduce the number of them.

A row of school buses.
School Buses. Source: JohnPickenPhoto, Creative Commons

In the court decision regarding the Gardendale school system, the judge, Madeline Hughes Haikala, found that the motivation for the secession of Gardendale was undoubtedly based in a desire to control the racial demographics of the city’s schools. Despite this, Gardendale was not exactly denied their request. For the 2017-2018 school year, the city of Gardendale is operating Gardendale Elementary School and Snow Rogers Elementary independently from Jefferson County. If the city is able to run the schools for three years “in good faith,” then they have a chance at a full secession from the district. They were given three requirements. First, they are obligated to appoint a black board member to the school-board. Second, they must work with the plaintiffs of the decision and the Justice Department to create a desegregation plan for the new district. Lastly, they must either give up Gardendale High School, which was paid for by the residents of Jefferson County, or repay the $33 million that the county spent building the school. If Gardendale can show “sufficient” evidence of integration, then they will be released from the court order.

The release from this court order would be much more significant than one might think. Let us consider Central High School in Tuscaloosa, whose city school system was released from its desegregation order in 2000. By the 1980s, Central had developed into a very well-integrated school. However, after the desegregation order ended, and a new school was built in the mostly white and affluent part of the county, 99% of the Central High School students were black. Combined with the United States’ long history of systematic racism and economic disparities, this also led to the school having higher rates of poverty and less access to important academic resources. This shows that even a “sufficiently” integrated school has the potential to re-segregate without a desegregation order.

Clearly, the inequalities re-segregation creates between black and white students are unjust and need to be addressed, but it is important to realize that re-segregation is wrong regardless of whether or not it has negative impacts on black students. Even in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Brown family was not pursuing the issue because of a dissatisfaction with the quality of education at the all black school their daughter attended, but because black and white children should not be separated simply because of race.

When it comes to specific cases, such as in Gardendale, it can be easy to be misled by what seem to reasonable claims, such as the improving of education, that do not actually have any solid support. We have to pay attention to the larger scale impacts of situations like the one in Gardendale. If we do not pay full attention to the things that are happening, we can overlook serious effects of seemingly small situations. Tuscaloosa and Gardendale are just two of many places in Alabama where systematic racism is still very much a living issue. We cannot allow ourselves to be complacent or to think that racism is over. The fact of the matter is that slavery occurred over hundreds of years, and legal racial segregation continued long after that. It would be foolish to believe that everything would be perfect only 63 years after the Brown v Board decision and 53 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Change takes time and diligence. This makes it absolutely necessary that we be fully aware of what is going on in our own backyard.

 

Cornbread Millionaires: Reflections on Riva and Josephine

 by LEONARD SMITH
a picture of Birkenau in the snow
Birkenau. Source: Midnight Believer, Creative Commons

I was enthused and a bit trepidatious when professor Madden-Lunsford announced we would be attending, as a class, the lecture of a Holocaust survivor and an African American woman whose father had been lynched when she was a child. I knew their stories would be both amazing and difficult to hear.

During my undergraduate studies in the early 90’s at Auburn University at Montgomery, I took a history course on the Holocaust. Before the course I had considered myself knowledgeable of the Holocaust. I discovered how ignorant I was when I learned of: the depth and breadth of the brutality and mass murder; the willing collusion of many nations and millions of people; how many nations including the U.S. denied sanctuary by not increasing immigration visas; how entire educated societies and cultures readily accepted the expansion of racism and anti-semitism to point whole scale genocide without question, because it fed their fear and anger; the discovery that if a group can be successfully scapegoated almost anything can be done to them, with little resistance, because to defend a scapegoat with logic and reason is to become a scapegoat. The most shocking discovery for me was that despite mountains of irrefutable evidence, the number of Holocaust deniers was growing. The knowledge I learned in that course changed me permanently and profoundly. I lost much of my faith in mankind. For a period of time during and following the class I suffered recurring nightmares.

Before entering the class I had naively believed that such an event could never happen again. I now know that not only could it be repeated, but that it has, in Cambodia, and most recently Sudan.

However, I also discovered that individual human courage was boundless and that miracles large and small happen. That was where my last personal seed of hope took refuge.

It is with this background and knowledge that I intellectually looked forward to, and was emotionally apprehensive of, hearing Riva Hirsch and Josephine McCall speak. I knew that these women were and are courageous. I wanted to be near that courage and learn from it.

Riva is a force of nature. She spoke of her own miracles; being found in Ukraine by people who spoke German and because of her Yiddish background being able to understand them (She referred to Yiddish as Jewish and I hoped that didn’t confuse too many people in the audience); the guard not looking underneath the carriage where she was hiding during her flight to safety; being hidden by a nun, who also spoke German, and that nun paying the ultimate sacrifice for helping her. When she spoke of being all alone in the forest, battling malnutrition, typhus, malaria, and hordes of lice, I knew she was made of far sterner stuff than I.

Riva spoke of her father’s business and how her family and his workers were a close knit group, an extended family before the war came to the Ukraine. Yet, for fear of putting themselves and their families in danger, these workers shut their doors to Riva and her family during their flight. Only one offered temporary refuge and only after Riva’s mother gave him all her jewels. As Riva spoke, so many of the atrocities I had learned of in that Holocaust course came back to the forefront of my mind. My faith in mankind was eroding again.

Though I had girded myself for  Riva’s story, Josephine, was like so many neighbors, coworkers, and friends I have known over the years. I had heard voices like hers over countless retail counters, through back screen doors and hollered from front porches. Her soft Blackbelt accent lulled me into a sense of comfort.

Riva’s story had taken place in WWII era Ukraine; a place I had only known through books and movies. But, I am familiar with Lowndes County, Alabama. I spent my childhood in neighboring Montgomery county. I had crossed Lowndes county many times on both the Old Selma Road and Highway 80. I knew the upper echelons of white society in Lowndes county were mockingly referred to as cornbread millionaires. They lived in antebellum mansions full of antiques; they were land rich but money poor. So much so, that if you went to their homes for supper, the only thing they could afford to serve in their heirloom china and silver was cornbread and beans with hog meat. I had heard it discussed that this facade and lack of resources made whites in Lowndes County particularly brutal in their treatment of black folks.

I am well steeped in the culture and nuances of Southern race relations. Though my experience of it is as a white male, born in 1964. This was the first time I had heard someone speak personally of the loss of a family member at the hands of open, socially sanctioned racist. I was surprised to learn that lynching was defined as death at the hands of three or more people and was not limited to death by hanging. I should not have been as surprised, as I was, when Josephine informed the audience that indenture (the practice of holding someone on your land as a laborer if they owed you a debt, essentially de facto slavery) was still enforced by they law in Lowndes County in 1947.

Josephine stated that her father, Elmore Bolling’s crime in the eyes of white men was that he had succeeded and purchased land, resulting in a white woman having to move off the property. Even though Mr. Bolling helped the women move and found her exactly the accommodation she wanted, his actions still constituted a crime against an unwritten social code, punishable by death.

I knew whites who thought this way, including many within my own family. They believed that all black men were lazy and stupid. Therefore, if a black man succeeded and had wealth, he must have cheated a white man or had help from interfering Northern whites and/or the Federal Government, which was the same as cheating a white man.

That was what was most disturbing for me about Josephine’s story. Her father’s murderers could have been friends of my grandparents or distant relations. Many people within my family were certainly capable of such a crime. Even the more moderate older family members believed that if a black man was lynched he must have done something stupid to put himself in harms way.

Both Riva and Josephine talked about how we must continue to speak up and talk about such atrocities and not let the deniers corrupt history and attempt to repeat it. Silence is the enemy of justice.

My lack of faith in mankind was growing. I wondered if speaking out was enough. The attitudes of many whites I know, especially those young enough to know better, is still shockingly racist. Just this week, I spoke with a friend who teaches high school English. She was distraught because a student had turned in an essay that was essentially a white supremest manifesto. The student was not a child on the fringe but rather a well liked person very popular in the high school social structure. I am often gobsmacked when I hear well educated white colleagues use the N-word, assuming I am as racist as they. I looked around at the audience in attendance and found them to very simpatico with the Riva and Josephine. The people who most needed to hear the speakers were not there. Just last night the local CBS news reported that according to the Anti-defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents were at a twenty year high. Up 47% in just the last two years.

I am honored to have heard Riva and Josephine’s stories and bask in the presence of their courage. I will speak up and continue to seek to root out my own internal vestiges of racism.

I spoke to Josephine after the presentation. We chuckled about Lowndes County’s cornbread millionaires. She told me where her father’s historical maker, that she had worked so hard to get erected, was located in Lowndesboro, just two hundred yards from the yellow flashing caution light. I knew the spot.

I spoke of my racist father who carried a badge and a gun for the Montgomery police force for twenty-five years and then twenty years more as an Alabama State Trooper. I told her, with dismay, of my father’s braggadocios, I heard as child, after he had a few beers. He told how he and his friends in high school would lay in wait in the dark, to catch the black men walking to town along the railroad tracks on Saturday night to visit their wives or girlfriends who were domestics and nannies in town. They subjected these men to humiliations and tortures. Their favorite being to strip them of their clothes and put them in the trunk of a car. They would release them naked on the highway, hands bound with lit firecrackers tied to their ankles and backside. My father always smiled with glee when he told these exploits. Josephine, compassionate and understanding of my grief over having such a father, clasp my hand and nodded. She was familiar with these kinds of events.

I left the lecture remembering that in my youth, in the seventies and eighties, I had believed by now we, as a society, would have a more level field of justice and opportunity for all, and that hate crimes would become fewer and fewer as society became more enlightened and heterogenous. However, as I walked to my car, a fear chewed at me. Was the leveling so many had fought for, and were still fighting for, beginning to slope again, becoming muddy and slippery, rising in elevation to the disadvantage and injustice of minorities? Will there be enough voices speaking up to again seek a leveling? History does not make me hopeful.

 

Leonard Lee Smith holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from Auburn University at Montgomery. He is a non-degree seeking graduate student in writing at University of Alabama at Birmingham. He won a Hackney award in 2012 for short fiction. He has told stories for The Moth Radio Hour