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Entries in race (10)

Thursday
Oct302014

We Are All As Blind To Racism As Men Are To Street Harassment

@HuffPost

These past days, a video tracking an actress walking through selected New York City neighborhoods has gone semi-viral. The video depicts the many (many) times the actress is accosted, harassed and even stalked by men, and was commissioned and produced by the anti-street harassment organization Hollaback!

As advocacy, the approach has, rightly in my view, been celebrated for making street harassment visible to men. Some have tweeted about the irony that this kind of evidence even needs to be produced. Shouldn't it be enough that we, the women who experience street-harassment regularly, say that it exists? But since we all know that it is not enough, solid audio-visual evidence is never a bad thing.

However, the video left me with large question marks and quite a bit of discomfort about its unspoken racial bias. Though the editorializing comments note that the actress was harassed by men of all ethnic or racial backgrounds, most of the men shown on the final video are Black, some Latino, and no one -- as far as I can tell -- white.

This racial bias in the video does not necessarily reflect reality.

While research shows that women of color are more likely to be affected by street harassment than white women, there is precious little actual research on who the harasser tends to be. Testimonials from women indicate that men of all colors harass, that maybe blue-collar workers are more likely to harass, and that street harassment can happen pretty much anywhere. My personal experience is of mostly white male harassers when in western Europe or the United States, and mostly Latino men in Latin America. In other words: I have been harassed mostly by whomever happened to be around.

And maybe geography is the key to the Hollaback! video's racial bias. The video seems to show the actress wandering mostly around communities with predominantly Black or Latino populations. There is no footage from City Island, Greenpoint or Shepherd's Bush, all NYC neighborhoods with predominantly white populations, where street harassment -- I can assure you -- is frequent and loud.

Intentional or not, the racial bias strips the video not only of authenticity and therefore authority, but also of effectiveness. When we continue to convey to (white) women, through imagery, pop culture and literature, that Black men are the main perpetrators of crime, we feed into the undeniable racial injustices in the United States crime processing system.

And that is bad enough.

But we also indirectly teach women and girls to ignore the violence and harassment they might -- and often do -- face from the (white) men who according to the same cultural biases are supposed to be their protectors.

And this latter point is perhaps the biggest question mark for me. I obviously don't get why Hollaback! would want to portray almost exclusively Black men as creepy and predatory. But I really don't get why an organization that prides itself on effective street harassment prevention would want to encourage myopic attention to only a fraction of it, however indirectly.

And I certainly don't understand why this problematic aspect of the video has not been universally highlighted by commentators along with its many strengths. Is it that we, as a society, are as blind to racial injustices as men, generally, are to street harassment?

Sadly, I think we are.

Friday
Mar012013

How Do You Prove That Discrimination No Longer Exists?

@RHRealityCheck

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives finally passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which reauthorizes funding for the fight against domestic violence in the United States. The bill passed after a prolonged partisan fight over specific protections for Native-American women and lesbian, bisexual, and trans women. Also this week, the conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court questioned the need for the promotion of equal voting rights, and, in particular, the continued need for oversight of equal rights in states that historically have discriminated against African Americans.

Each story elicited a pundit storm of outrage over the partisan divide on discrimination on the basis of sex, race, or sexual orientation. Many politicians and justices quoted in the press perpetuated the notion that liberals care about discrimination while conservatives do not.

But that would be an oversimplification.

At the heart of the discussion about the need for both VAWA and the Voting Rights Act is a fundamental disagreement about what governments should do about discrimination, and, even more so, what they shouldn’t do.

That difference of opinion is what led Justice Antonin Scalia to refer to the Voting Rights Act—a law that was conceived of as a tool to overcome racial entitlement among whites—as perpetuating a sense of racial entitlement among non-whites. By portraying people of color as receiving, or rather demanding, special treatment, Scalia converted the legal protection of equal rights into a situation of enforced discrimination.

It is also why some Republicans cited “inclusiveness” as the reason they supported explicit benefits for generally underserved populations in VAWA, while other Republicans claimed to vote against these benefits for the very same reason. While the former acknowledge that some women need to be explicitly named in order to be visible to policymakers and service providers, the latter promote the notion that by treating everyone the same, we will somehow magically be equal.

Simply put, the difference is not so much whether someone cares about discrimination but rather if they choose to see the full range of its reach. With some notable exceptions, most people across the political spectrum recognize flagrant forms of racism, sexism, and homophobia. The real divide is on how much we believe can and should be done to overcome historical disadvantage and internalized prejudice. Should the government allow quotas in universities to promote race and gender equality? Should states actively promote a diverse workforce?

International human rights standards are clear that affirmative action can only be legitimate while it serves a purpose; when a situation of historical disadvantage has been overcome—that is, when those who were meant to benefit from affirmative action genuinely are equal—the special measures must go.

The question, of course, is how to determine the exact moment when everyone truly has equal opportunities. This is a question that necessarily will have different answers for different people. Recent studies suggest that discrimination is still a reality for many of the subgroups that benefit the most from both the new incarnation of VAWA and the Voting Rights Act: Blacks, Latinos, working women, and Native Americans. Still, the American public just reelected a Black president, and the minority leader of the House of Representatives is a woman. In other words, systemic inequalities persist even though some people manage to escape their consequences. In this situation, perhaps the best test of whether temporary special measures are still warranted is conversational. When we stop talking about how strange it is that President Obama and Representative Pelosi got to where they are, there will be equal opportunity for all.

Of course, the courts cannot use conversation as a legal test to determine when to mandate an end to temporary special measures. Conversation can, however, be a rule of thumb for the rest of us until such time where it is no longer remarkable to find African Americans or women in positions of power.

In the meantime, the onus should be on the government, including members of Congress and justices of the Supreme Court, to prove when affirmative action has run its course, both when it comes to the prevention of domestic violence and voting rights.

Saturday
Feb232013

TV Recognizes the “Modern Family”—Why Not Governments?

@RHRealityCheck

I don’t watch “Modern Family,” the prime-time sitcom depicting “non-traditional”—e.g., same-sex, interracial, and inter-generational—couples. Still, I’m struck by how fast family realities change and how slowly laws and societal perceptions about what’s “right” reflect those changes.

The couples depicted in “Modern Family” were surely seen by society at large as more unusual in 2009, when the show first aired, than even just five years later. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering two cases that might pave the way for federal benefits for same-sex couples, the number of interracial marriages is steadily growing, and the combination of reproductive technologies, longer life-spans, and the normalization of serial monogamy has taken age somewhat out of the equation when it comes to forming a family.

Even so, real-life individuals in same-sex couples, or those who live with someone of a different race or generation from themselves, often face daily struggles to protect their families from legal uncertainty and publicly articulated disgust. Depending on where we live, our intimate lives and families may be subject to criminal sanctions, unequal legal protections, scrutiny, shaming, and belittling.

Often, the protection of our families in law—while welcome—does not mean we are immune to community shaming and violence. In Latin America, for example, a wave of new marriage equality laws has not yet had an impact on pervasive community violence against LGBTI individuals. And though it is more than 45 years since the Supreme Court invalidated the prohibition of interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia, prejudices against interracial couples—in particular where one of the partners is Black—are expressed frequently in social media and in some cases result in discrimination.

This tug-of-war between perceptions, laws, and reality expresses itself clearly where courts have to decide to what extent legislators get to put their own—or their constituents’—prejudices before principles of equality and facts about child welfare.

This week, the European Court on Human Rights issued a ruling in one such case. The court held that Austria had violated human rights by denying two lesbian women a proper evaluation of their adoption petition. One of the women had petitioned to adopt the biological son of her female partner, a child they both had been parenting since infancy.

The Austrian government argued that its adoption laws are based on the notion that all children ideally grow up with a father and a mother. The European Court on Human Rights countered that this vision does not adequately protect child welfare and certainly is not enough to implement discriminatory laws. So far, so good.

However, the case also permitted subjective perceptions of what a family should be to persist in the law. In this week’s ruling, the European Court highlighted the fact that Austria allows unmarried different-sex couples to adopt each other’s children, whereas unmarried same-sex couples cannot (and same-sex couples are not yet allowed to marry in Austria). Had Austria reserved adoption for those who are married and marriage for those who are straight, a close read of the ruling indicates that the court might have allowed this; after all, the Court had allowed precisely this set-up in a 2012 ruling involving France.

To be sure, governments have the mandate, and even the obligation, to encourage family structures that benefit society generally and children more specifically. And the laws and policies that flow from this mandate must to some extent be subjective. The state may, for example, believe that marriage has a value in and of itself, and not only as it relates to parental and economic stability, and, as such, seek to promote marriage through tax structures and inheritance laws.

But beliefs only go so far. The obligation of the state to protect the human rights of both children and adults must find its expression through science and facts. One fact is that same-sex couples and LGBTI individuals already parent children. Another, that the welfare of children correlates with parental support and love, and not with the parents’ sexual orientation, race, identity, or age.

But the overarching fact that governments across the world should address immediately is that there are any number of “modern families” who are discriminated against by law and ostracized in their communities.

Monday
Nov262012

Giving Thanks For Times the United States Has Fought Back Against Discrimination

@RHRealityCheck

It’s that time of year again: turkeys get pardoned or, more frequently, eaten. Malls get raided. Football gets ignored. Meanwhile, life goes on. And while it is easy to be cynical and disheartened by global news in light of so much hostility and inhumanity, for those of us living in the United States, this is also a time for giving thanks.

It is in that spirit that I have gathered a list of some of my favorite pieces of U.S. news on overcoming discrimination over the past couple of months:

  • On April 9, 2012—Equal Pay Day—we could celebrate that the pay gap between Latina and black women and men had been reduced slightly compared to the year before. The over-all pay gap between men and women stayed more or less then same. (Of course, in June 2012, Senate Republicans blocked a bill that would have created better remedies for workplace discrimination through unequal pay by banning companies from retaliating against workers who ask about pay disparities, and by permitting punitive damages where discrimination is proven. But for now, let’s be thankful that the race/gender pay gap is diminishing).

  • August 1, 2012, marked the day the provision of the Affordable Care Act that requires employers and insurers to cover preventive health care services, including contraception, in their policies without a co-pay took effect. This, in particular, is good news for women, because women often are stuck with the bulk of contraceptive responsibilities.

  • In September 2012, a national study (citing 2011 data) was published, showing that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth (LGBT) in U.S. school face less harassment than they used to. Granted, a whopping third of LGBT youth still say verbal harassment or bullying takes place often or frequently, which is outrageous (and probably reflects under-reporting). Still, given the fact that this number is down from almost 41% in 2009, it is certainly good news.

  • In early November 2012, U.S. voters in four states came out in support of marriage equality, passing same-sex marriage in Maine, Maryland, and Washington state, and rejecting a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman in Minnesota. It should be obvious why this is good news, despite the fact that same sex couples still are denied equal rights at the federal level.

  • Also in November 2012, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the national OB/GYN organization of the United States, recommended that oral contraception be made available over the counter. This is great news, if translated into reality, especially since it will mitigate some of the consequences when employers don’t want to offer comprehensive health insurance to their employees.

  • And last but not least, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit declared that Michigan’s ban on affirmative action policies is unconstitutional. Or put differently: there is nothing discriminatory about seeking a race (or gender) conscious way to overcome entrenched inequalities.

You may have noticed that none of this news is unpolluted. For every thanks we give, there is another mountain to move.

I am, however, an eternal optimist. Perhaps the best news of all is that when we look at gender and race discrimination in the United States over the past 4 or 5 decades, while it is still prominent and rife, it is gradually becoming less and less acceptable in law and in practice.

This year, for Thanksgiving, I celebrate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: it’s been almost half a century since Congress codified the fact that we are all equal, at least on paper. I trust it won’t take us another 50 to really make it a reality.

Thursday
Sep202012

In America, Our Inalienable Right to Vote is in Jeopardy

@RHRealityCheck

The right to vote is an illusion for me: I have been allowed to vote only once in my more than two decades as an emancipated adult. But while I have never been completely at peace with this disenfranchisement, it is the consequence of my personal choice to migrate early and often: my home country, Denmark, extends only limited democratic rights for citizens living abroad.

It is, however, not a choice for the millions of U.S. citizens who will not be allowed to vote in the upcoming presidential election, either because they have been convicted of a felony, or because they are excluded from voting through voting roll purges, strict voter ID laws, or existing or new restrictions on when and how eligible citizens are allowed to vote.

These restrictions on who is allowed to vote and how are based on two erroneous assumptions.

The first and most easily dismissed assumption is that voter fraud is rampant in the United States, requiring stricter regulations on new voter registration, voter ID requirements, and limits on voting hours. This notion is so obviously false that it has been debunked numerous times by independent watchdog organizations and in the mainstream media. Latest figures show that about one in 16,000 registered voters might have a problem, though some issues are neither intentional nor malicious but rather the result of people moving, changing their signature, or misspelling the name of the city in which they live.

Unfortunately, widespread voter fraud is a notion that has traction with those who already believe the United States consists of the deserving and the undeserving. In this way, some commentators conflate welfare recipients, urban residents, and individuals likely to engage in voter fraud. More damningly, non-governmental groups ostensibly working to verify voter registers across the country have seemingly been targeting counties with predominantly minority populations, or low-income communities, using methods that have been discredited by government agencies, such as the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.  Just this weekend, the New York Times reported that some are so focused on proving fraud that they fabricate the proof. As a result, hundreds of legitimate voters have been purged from registers.

These efforts are usually partisan. The ongoing case in Ohio, in which the state government is seeking to strike down early voting in selected districts and for selected populations, has the possibility of preventing more registered Democrats than Republicans from accessing polls on non-work days.

The second assumption behind the exclusion of voters in the United States is that voting is a privilege and not a human right. International human rights treaties define the equal right and opportunity to vote and to be elected in genuine periodic elections as key to democracy, peace, and human dignity. And while the United States is historically reluctant to sign on to international human rights obligations, the U.S. Senate accepted the ongoing obligation to implement the right to vote as defined in international law in 1992.

To be sure, some will say that the millions of convicted felons who are excluded from voting for life have brought it upon themselves and do not deserve to participate in democracy. No amount of data showing the disproportionate (and perhaps intentional) impact of this policy on communities of color will convince this group that those convicted of crimes should not be excluded from voting. The notion that voting as a human right means there can be no distinction between the deserving and the undeserving will also not have any impact: people who believe that those convicted of felonies should lose all rights for life do not believe in human rights at all.

So far, politicians have assumed they have support for voter ID laws because some three-quarters of the U.S. population poll in favor of these laws. However, the same polls show an almost equal concern among the population that legitimate voters will be excluded from the polls in November. The difference between these two concerns is that the latter is real and the former is largely fabricated, as is the worry that those convicted of felonies are undeserving of the right to vote.

More to the point, ensuring the right to vote should not be based on polling data. The U.S. government—including both the executive and the legislative branches—has the obligation to ensure that the right to vote is more than an illusion for all U.S. citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, home, or history of conflict with the law.