Archive for racism

Deconstructing White Supremacy (in a workshop and real life)

By Anna Miller, a staff writer at RightsViews and a graduate student in ISHR’s Human Rights MA Program.

Note: This blog post addresses white supremacy in the United States only, though the ideology is alive globally. 

On October 27, Dean Melanie Pagán and Dean Samantha Shapses, both of the School of International and Public Affairs, hosted a Deconstructing White Supremacy Workshop via Zoom. The workshop was open to the Columbia University community and fulfilled the Community Citizenship Requirement for Inclusion and Belonging for new Columbia students.

To kick off the workshop, the group screened Understanding White Supremacy (And How to Defeat It). This video explained how the roots of white supremacy are linked to colonization and racial biology. White colonizers assumed that people of color were inferior because they were “so easily conquered” and then presumed that “white skin people were perhaps more evolved than dark skin people.” While these ideas are objectively nonsensical, they did help form modern-day white supremacy and as such are important to understanding the roots of this ideology. The video also included a call to action and critical thought: “white supremacy is a part of American history and we need to own it and fully understand it before we can eradicate it.” 

Next, Dean Pagán and Dean Shapses further defined white supremacy by offering a list of traits that are present in white supremacy culture. See a summary list below and learn more about the definitions of these terms

Jones, Kenneth and Okun, Tema. “Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups.”

Dean Pagán and Dean Shapses challenged the attendees to consider how these traits show up in everyday life, opening up the floor to discussion from participants. A key aspect of the workshop was taking the theory shared about white supremacy and applying it to our own lives. As such, I am going to detail how this workshop, and ideas of white supremacy culture, challenged me. 

Two traits of white supremacy culture that I had a hard time reckoning with were the ones that were taught to me at a young age: perfectionism and sense of urgency. In my American Jewish family, success – particularly academic and career success – was held highest of all. To achieve success there was no room for inadequacy (perfectionism) and a high desire for quick results (sense of urgency). At first glance, these may seem like harmless characteristics. Yet, when the layers are peeled back it is clear that these traits stem from a fear of not measuring up to the white, American dream. 

Like many Jews living in the U.S. post-Holocaust, my grandparents subdued their Jewish identity in search of American assimilation. By 1950, the U.S. was home to more than five million Jews and those individuals successfully made their way into the economic, political, academic, and cultural spheres. It is important to remember, though, that upward mobility was often used as a way to escape the persecution of white people. Surely, they can’t hate us if we are well-educated, rich, and pass as white people in society. Yet with acts of antisemitism at an all-time high in 2019, it is evident that striving for whiteness is not an antidote to the ongoing struggle of Jewish Americans today. Nor does the worship of whiteness ensure a safe, prosperous future for Black Americans. The White supremacy ideology is still at large, suppressing minority voices in order to enforce its omnipresence. 

When it comes to white supremacy, law and policy is critical, but it will only take us so far. It is up to each one of us to examine our thoughts and actions for characteristics of white supremacy. If you have not already read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” – start there. Next, it is critical to stay aware of our environment and combat white supremacy by calling it out in class, in your social groups, and at home. As white supremacy is rooted in American culture, do not be surprised when you find it coming from the mouth of a loved one or the President of the United States. Once you have the education and resources, vigilance is required to work toward a country free from the clench of white supremacy.

Feature photo credit: Creative Commons // Backbone Campaign.

Does Addressing Climate Change Mean Addressing Racism?

By Noah Smith, RightsViews staff writer and graduate student in the Human Rights Studies program at Columbia University

On October 28, Climate Refugees and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University brought together experts in environmental racism, indigenous rights, climate science and racial justice to discuss the two fundamental issues of our time: race and climate change. The panelists offered their expert opinions on the intersectional relationship between race and climate change and discussed solutions to mitigate these issues moving forward.

The climate crisis has disproportionately impacted marginalized populations, many of whom may be displaced or forced to migrate, because of years of unequal access to opportunities and gaps in human rights. Panelist Dr. Ingrid Waldron, a noted sociologist, has coined this disproportionate impact as ‘Environmental Racism’ which she defined as ‘‘a disproportionate location and exposure for indigenous, racialized communities and poor white communities to contamination from polluting industries and other environmentally hazardous activities.’’

The panel further articulated the delineation of ‘Environmental Racism’ by discussing the COVID-19 pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests for racial justice, which correspondingly exemplified the effects of two divergent crises that have disproportionate impacts on Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) because of systemic unequal access to opportunities. In 2020 the JAMA Network Open, which is part of the Journal of the American Medical Association, published a report which elucidated that in the United States Black mothers are most adversely affected by pregnancy risks associated with climate change and Black communities face heightened risks of air pollution. Upon revealing these startling realities, the panelists state that race appears to be a greater risk of exposure to environmental pollutants than poverty.

Panelist Professor Philip G. Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, discussed a 2019 report on Climate Change and Poverty, which found that developing nations will bear 75% of the financial costs and losses associated with the climate crisis, despite only contributing 10%  of carbon dioxide emissions. Alston further asserted that one could argue that ‘‘the whole phenomenon of climate change is driven by racism because it’s outsourced, and the dominant white elites are going to be able to protect themselves and they do not care about the terrible consequences that are being predicted because they will hit other groups.’’

Given the current bleak narrative, the panel offered future solutions to assuage the concerning trend we see regarding the current crisis. Panelist Dr. Lucky Tran, a science communicator based at Columbia University, spoke of the need to fight for communities harmed by bad science policies. Stating that there is a broad misunderstanding by science advocates who operate under the belief that facts alone are enough to convince individuals that climate change as well as racial inequality are real and pose existential threats to our society. He pointed out that this line of advocacy is not enough stating that ‘‘facts are not enough, we are talking about values. We’re talking about real lives, we’re talking about stories, and we have to do that a lot better.’’ This emphasis on storytelling as part of the solution to the climate crisis has been utilized by many science advocates in recent years. 

In fact, I recently watched a documentary titled America’s First Climate Change Refugees, which told the stories of communities across the US who are now threatened by rising sea-levels resulting from climate change. The individual voices showcased in this documentary are incredibly powerful and exemplify how storytelling can help us address complicated issues such as climate change. 

Furthermore, panelist Dr. Carlton Waterhouse, an international expert on environmental law, spoke about environmental justice and suggested we think of it in three frames: distributive, procedural, and justice as recognition. This framework of conceptualizing environmental justice recognizes that there is an unequal distribution of pollutant sources in society, a lack of recognition of marginalized voices in government and environment policy procedural processes, as well as a lack of recognition of what marginalized communities need and deserve. 

Actualizing these frames of justice should be a priority and as stated by Dr. Waterhouse recognizing ‘‘inequitable distribution of pollution, the harm that comes from it, and the benefits that are derived from it, that to me is the core of environmental justice.’’

Truth in Sentencing: Mass Incarceration in the United States

By Reem Katrib, Staff Writer for RightsViews 

With the mark of the 10th year anniversary of Michelle Alexander’s powerful book The New Jim Crow at the end of January, our current celebration of  Black History Month, and an approaching presidential election, it is important to bring to the forefront the continuing systemic racism in the American criminal justice system. The recent eighth presidential debate, argued the evening of February 7, 2020, in New Hampshire, brought forth this topic with the spotlight on presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg when asked why a black resident in South Bend, Indiana was four times more likely to be arrested for the possession of marijuana than a white resident after his appointment to office. While Buttigieg had initially avoided the questions posed by ABC News’ Live News Anchor Linsey Davis, he then conceded, claiming that the arrests made were made as a result of the gang violence that was prevalent in the black community of South Bend, causing the deaths of many black youths. This logic and rhetoric, however, plays into narratives which contribute to the disproportionate criminalization of black Americans, despite Buttigieg’s recognition of systemic racism in the criminal justice system on the national level. This then begs two questions; primarily, what policies on mass incarceration impact persons of color today? And what positions have the democratic presidential candidates taken on such a pervasive issue? 

A History of Mass Incarceration in the United States

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

The 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified on December 6, 1865 and deems slavery unconstitutional, except as a punishment for crime.  While the ratification of the 13th amendment was meant to abolish slavery, a mythology of black criminality continued to be perpetuated through a white nationalist narrative that took alternative, but just as harmful, forms to target black Americans. Movies such as “The Birth of a Nation” (1915),which was responsible for the rise of the Klu Klux Klan, committed to a narrative of black criminality that many white people wanted to tell. White people wanted to continue to benefit from the “loophole” in the 13th amendment; more so, the movie depicted them, and specifically members of the Klu Klux Klan, as “valiant saviours of a post-war South ravaged by Northern carpetbaggers and immoral freed blacks.”  

Slavery in the 19th century and continuing discrimination, violations and abuse, and segregation policies such as those of the Jim Crow era have led to generational trauma and the dispersion of black communities from the south. These human rights violations have not ceased with time but only have changed in nature; systemic oppression against people of color has continued through carefully nuanced political policies that only propagate these violations as systems of protection. The mass incarceration of people of color, which has fed into the prison industrial complex, reasserts systems of racial discrimination and the policing of those marginalized. While not slavery by name, the mass incarceration of people of color  acts as slavery in practice.

 Although the United States has the highest rate of incarceration at 25% per cent, it only constitutes 5% of the world population. This is a massive statistic, yet, as Alessandro Di Giorgi articulates, “the sheer extension of the correctional population in the United States does not convey the race and class dimensions of the US penal state—the result of a four-decade-long carceral experiment devised from the outset as a political strategy to restructure racial and class domination in the aftermath of the radical social movements of the 1960s.”

The Civil Rights movements that began in the late 1940s were countered by efforts to criminalize black leaders such as Fred Hampton, Assata Shakur, and Angela Davis.  In the 1960s, President Nixon emphasized “law and order” and synonymized crime and race through a “war on drugs” in which drug dependency and addiction were regarded as a crime, a rhetorical “war” that disproportionately targeted poor, urban neighborhoods occupied by primarily people of color. Through this syntax of subtle and thinly veiled racial appeal, matched with backlash towards the Civil Rights Movement, the Nixon campaign deployed the “Southern Strategy,”  which aimed at gaining the votes of lower income white people who had previously voted with the democratic party. This strategy utilized the war on drugs as a top-down approach to gain the support of the white people who had felt isolated and alienated with the dismantling of the Jim Crow laws on racial segregation. 

The war on drugs was only strengthened in later years, especially with the election of Ronald Raegan in 1982. Increase in poverty as well as the widespread dealing of crack, which was easier to access than powdered cocaine, meant an increase in incarceration rates of low income people of color as well. Significantly, crack and cocaine are identical in molecular composition; however, crack had become associated with blackness and thus a worse form than powdered cocaine, which was used just as frequently by high-income white people as a “party drug.” More so, crack was cheaper to produce and therefore circulated more easily among lower income communities as opposed to cocaine which was mostly circulated and in the possession of middle and upper classes, and more specifically, white people. A study conducted by the ACLU found that “in 1986, before the enactment of the federal mandatory minimum sentencing for crack cocaine offenses, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11% higher than for whites. Four years later, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 49% higher.”

“What Raegan eventually does is takes the problem of economic inequality, of hyper-segregation in America’s cities, and the problem of drug abuse and criminalizes all of that in the form of the war on drugs,” argues Ava Duvernay in her documentary 13th.  

This narrative was only furthered by President Bill Clinton who proposed several policies encouraging policing and the death penalty for violent crimes. During his administration, the three strikes rule for prisoners as well as mandatory minimums were created. This meant that cases moved from under the jurisdiction of judges to that of prosecutors; notably, 95% of elected prosecutors throughout the U.S. are white. “Truth in sentencing,” which is a law enacted in order to reduce the likelihood of early release from imprisonment,  has often been questioned as a result of this change in how individuals charged with crimes get prosecuted and sentenced. Significantly, 97% of those locked up, for example, have plea bargains and do not even go through trials. This was significant to the Clinton administration as he claimed a more hardline approach with regards to criminal justice in order to gain support and win the presidential elections. 

Under Bill Clinton, sixty new capital offense punishments were also added to the law, and the 1994 Federal Crime Bill led to the massive expansion of the prison system through increase in funding and personnel such as police officers. This bill then also meant the expansion of the prison industrial complex, and hence the benefit of certain corporations as well as the political progression of Clinton through similar means to Raegan and Nixon. 

As seen in the figure above, extracted from The Sentencing Project: Fact Sheet: “Trends in U.S. Corrections,” state expenditure on corrections has dramatically increased over time. This attests to the use of mass incarceration as a political strategy that perpetuates racial discrimination as politicians have increasingly utilized a hardline criminal justice approach in order to gain public support. This is especially evident with the election of Clinton and the expansion of the prison system which included increase in funding.  

It also asserts the influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) on policy bills. ALEC is a lobbyist group that advocates for limited governance, free markets, and federalism. Importantly, ALEC claims the membership of many organizations and legislators. Previous member, Correction Corporations of America (CCA), has benefited as the leader of private prisons as a result of such influence over federal spending. The CCA has had a role in shaping crime policy across the country, including the increase in criminalization of communities of people of color. More so, there is now a move towards the privatization of probation and parole by the American Bail Coalition, a system in which people could be incarcerated within their own communities.  

In prison, incarcerated individuals experience a process of immediate sensory deprivation and dehumanization, followed by disenfranchisement that essentially removes their rights as citizens, such as the right to vote or get a job as the right to vote excludes previously incarcerated people. The racial caste then seen during the Jim Crow era has been redesigned. Not only has there been incessant criminalization and disenfranchisement of black people, but convict leasing has also risen as a new form of slavery. Convict leasing, which started as early as 1844 in Louisiana, means the leasing of the labor of those incarcerated, often without compensation and in poor conditions, in order to increase profit in a certain sector.  The legal inheritances from times of slavery in the United States have become the foundations for the modern prison industrial complex, in which black men make up 40.2 per cent of the prison population while only making up approximately 6.5 percent of the U.S. population. 

The above chart is from The Sentencing Project: Fact Sheet: “Trends in U.S. Corrections”

Ta-Nehisi Coates deems reparations to the black community a question of citizenship. When the history of mass incarceration is looked at with the recognition that members of colored communities have consistently been treated as second class citizens, this is undeniable. Coates makes the claim that slavery and past plundering cannot be separated from today’s context of mass incarceration and the “logic of enslavement respects no such borders.” This enslavement which overarches over private and public spheres presses  the question: how should the U.S. go about institutional reform when politicians and corporations have weaponized racial discrimination in veiled lines to gain political prowess? Could an unofficial form of truth-telling and truth-seeking place the pressure necessary for institutional reform and justice? Questions of employing transitional justice mechanisms such as truth commissions and reparations in a consolidated democracy then suggest a new approach to these mechanisms to encourage institutional reform. Political strategies have begun to shift and so we must ask “do we feel comfortable with people taking a lead on a conversation in a moment where it feels right politically?”

What the Democratic Candidates Say

With that in mind, as well as the events of the recent presidential debate in New Hampshire, it’s important to note the political stances of the democratic presidential candidates to ask of the intentions and the applicability of criminal justice policies and policies on mass incarceration. The Marshall Project outlines the stances of these candidates. 

Significant to this discourse is the recognition that all democratic presidential candidates oppose the death penalty. Bernie Sanders and Peter Buttigieg would like to eliminate mandatory minimums while Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden would prefer reducing them. All candidates would like to legalize marijuana while Biden would vote on decriminalizing it instead. Likewise, Sanders believes that those incarcerated should have the right to vote while Biden, Buttigieg, and Warren believe that those incarcerated should only have the right to vote when they have left prison.

 Other topics to consider include the reform of the bail system, use of clemency, and use of private prisons at a federal level. With these stances noted, one must contextualize and recognize how such policies would affect the communities of those most implicated as a result of the systemic racism in place. One must also question why there hasn’t been more discourse on reparations for the years of weaponized racial discrimination that have been enacted through the prison industrial complex and the mass incarceration of people of color.