A Moral Threat to Gender Norms?: Linking Christian Fundamentalism to Intolerance of Transgender Americans

This paper was submitted on April 27, 2016 for the course DR: 6120 at Wayne State University, Human Diversity and Human Conflict by Amber Hughson and should not be copied.

In the United States, gender nonconforming Americans face startling rates of discrimination and abuse, leading to high rates of suicide attempts, physical and sexual assault, homelessness, and imprisonment for survival crimes (Grant, Mottet & Tanis, 2011; Erni, 2013).  Despite the reality that transgender and gender nonconforming individuals are very often the victims of harassment and discrimination, legislation has recently been put forward throughout the country to protect cisgender Americans from policies that seek to protect transgender citizens. Intolerance of transgender citizens is often linked to normative insecurity regarding sex and gender, based partly on widespread misunderstandings about gender fluidity, sex, and sexual orientation. Working off of previous research, this paper will connect the experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming citizens to the exploitation of Americans’ insecurities about sex and gender norms by right-wing authoritarians (RWA) and Christian fundamentalists. In particular, North Carolina’s recent successful passage of House Bill 2 (HB 2) will be highlighted as an example of anti-trans political maneuvering by RWA Christian fundamentalists.

To begin, I’ll define the term transgender as well as gender nonconforming, as they will be used throughout this paper. Stryker (2008) defines transgender as “people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth” (p. 1). In this paper, transgender will include individuals who identify themselves as a gender not assigned to them at birth, regardless of their transition status or performance of their preferred gender identity. Seelman (2014) defines gender nonconformity as “a range of gender experiences, subjectivities and presentations that fall across, between or beyond stable categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’… [including] those who identify as male-to-female (MTF, or trans women), female-to-male (FTM, or trans men), genderqueer, two-spirit, androgynous, and other gender identities” (p. 187). In some ways, these terms center and normalize sex and gender dichotomy, but they are used with respect and a sincere belief that gender neutral and identity affirming language is on the horizon. From here, I’ll begin by exploring what gender norms are and how they impact transgender Americans in daily life, to be followed by how these norms impact transgender Americans in the law and who is actively creating or maintaining those laws.

Gender Norms and Violence Experienced by Transgender Americans

Feminists, such as Simone de Beauvoir, bell hooks, Judith Butler, and Angela Davis, among many, have explored the ways that female-women throughout history are expected to look, act, and behave as compared to male-men. Further, they discuss how these roles inform and reinforce the social superiority of men over women in patriarchy.  Allan Johnson (1997) writes, “…male-identified qualities are associated with the work valued most in most patriarchal societies–such as business, politics, war… In contrast, qualities such as inefficiency, cooperation, mutuality, equality, sharing, compassion, caring…. are all devalued and culturally associated with femininity and femaleness” (p. 154). These types of qualities and behaviors separately assigned to males and females construct our social norms of gender. Tajfel (1970) explains that social norms are “…an individual’s expectation of how others expect him to behave and his expectation of how others will behave in any given social situation” (p. 98). Without the presence of these prescribed norms of how males and females should look and behave, transgender identities would simply not exist. If, regardless of genitalia and hormones, any human being could dress, speak, walk, and otherwise socialize in any manner they saw fit without question, there would be no model behavior to define deviance. These socially prescribed gender norms are the very thing which transgender people do not conform to.  

If a transgender person lives as a woman (MTF) or a man (FTM), they may or may not have genital anatomy which matches their gender identity, but they may also have secondary sex characteristics such as facial hair, breasts, broad shoulders, or narrow hips which would be visual cues to strangers that they do not fit into the model of what a woman or man “should” look like according to gender norms. Further, a transgender person may have been raised as a girl, but transition to living as a boy and face social stigma from those who do not accept or understand these changes. In response to their mere presence outside of these norms, transgender and gender nonconforming people encounter discrimination in housing, healthcare, and education at very high rates. Stryker (2008) writes, “Because most people have great difficulty recognizing the humanity of another person if they cannot recognize that person’s gender, the gender-changing person can evoke in others a primordial fear of monstrosity, or loss of humanness. The gut-level fear can manifest as hatred, outrage, panic, or disgust, which may then translate into physical or emotional violence” (p. 6). The National Transgender Discrimination Survey of 2011 showed that 41% of transgender respondents attempted suicide, compared to 1.6% of the general population. Further, that 78% of gender nonconforming students faced harassment in school, 53% of respondents experienced harassment in public accommodations, and 63% experienced discrimination that impacted their survival–such as refusal of housing and health care (Grant et. al). In a study of the experiences of transgender youth, Grossman and D’Augelli found that youth “…expressed fear that the constant verbal harassment and discrimination they faced might escalate into physical violence and sexual abuse, as they found themselves being continually objectified sexually” (2006, p. 124). Research shows that transgender Americans face violence in the physical and emotional sense, as well as structural violence in limiting their accessibility to basic needs such as housing, healthcare, and social services.

One of the many spaces in which transgender individuals face harassment is in public bathrooms segregated by gender. The separation of restrooms by gender is relatively recent, having occurred in the Victorian era with industrialization; this segregation is not biologically necessary, but is socially mandated and reinforces the strict dichotomy between the sexes (Schilt & Westbrook, 2015). Due to a disinterest or inability to conform to gender norms, transgender Americans find themselves stared at, harassed, or physically assaulted in public restrooms, where they encounter cisgender citizens who feel their gendered space has been violated by someone of the “wrong” gender. Seelman (2014) writes, “The pressure to pass creates a situation of “extreme stress” for trans and gender-nonconforming individuals because they must worry about whether they meet others’ gendered standards in order to access spaces crucial to basic well-being” (p. 189). Gender nonconforming Americans are, by nature of these experiences with assault, encouraged to align as closely as possible with society’s expectations for their gender or sex, or to face harassment if they fail to do so.

Among transgender Americans, transgender women were 3.13 times as likely to face harassment than transgender men (Grant et. al, 2011; Seelman, 2014). Transgender women who have transitioned from presenting as men to women are largely misunderstood by Americans who are socialized to believe that men are dominant and superior; for any male to display feminine characteristics results in derision by cis heteronormative men and women (Pharr, 1997). Gender normative Americans reject the idea that a man might want to be a woman, because socialization dictates that women are inferior. However, this interpretation of transgender women retains the importance of biological sex, by situating them as men acting like women, rather than as women acting like women. Grossman and D’Augelli (2006) write, “As gender-atypical behavior is much less accepted in boys than girls, biological males who are transgender are most often the targets of verbal and physical abuse. Without resources and support, these youth often drop out of school, run away, and end up on the streets, where they may engage in survival sex and become at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections” (p. 113). Furthermore, transgender Americans face greater discrimination when they carry multiple marginalized identities, with transgender African Americans faring far worse than all others in rates of physical, sexual, and emotional harassment (Grant et. al, 2011). Violence and discrimination against transgender and gender nonconforming Americans likely stems from perceived normative threat, in which the ambiguity of sex, gender, or sexual orientation due to deviation from social norms, mobilizes vigilance and potential violence in the defense of “something essential about one’s group or nation” (Creppell, 2011, p. 452). Though there is no willful intent to harm by transgender individuals, in defense of social norms Americans have shown a willingness to react with abuse and discrimination out of fear, discomfort, or even disgust.

Faced with high rates of violence in public spaces that are often segregated by sex and gender, transgender Americans have very few options for legal recourse. In spite of this, they manage their lives by choosing the facilities and resources which will lead them to the safest outcome as a matter of survival. America’s failure to acknowledge gender nonconformity as an identity to be protected as a basic right leads to legal discrimination against socially marginalized citizens.

Gender Norms and Legal Discrimination

As illustrated above, evidence has shown that transgender Americans are frequently the victims of physical violence by their fellow citizens, but they also face legal liminality due to American use of sex rather than gender terminology in legal protections and regulations (Johnson, 2010; Erni, 2013). Erni (2013) explains that the use of the term “sex” in legal protections allows loopholes which are exploited by employers, housing providers, and states to discriminate against transgender individuals without recourse, because gender identity is not protected within the law. Further, that anti-discrimination protections for women and LGB individuals have used the basis of biological sex, rather than gender, to fight for equal rights to protections awarded to males and heterosexual people. Erni writes, “While there is no question about the benefit brought about by advancements in women’s rights and same-sex anti-discrimination and equality laws, these advancements are a double-edged sword to transgender people whose very existence defies and repudiates the gender-sexuality system as we know it” (p. 138). As a result, Erni concludes that transgender individuals are disproportionately likely to be arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison because society both leads them into committing survival crimes such as theft, squatting, and prostitution, but also denies them spaces where they can safely and legally engage within society. Aside from failure to be protected, laws criminalizing nonconforming gender performance date back to the 1850’s in the United States when, in response to the growth of industrial cities which allowed for the development of LGBT communities, cross-dressing was made illegal by many states (Stryker, 2008). Marilyn Frye (1983) explains this as the double bind of oppression–“situations in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty” (p. 150). This double bind makes decisions about which bathroom facility to use, which locker room, which sports team, or which clothing department to shop in distinctly stressful and dangerous for transgender Americans.

To make matters worse, in the last several months, the oppression of transgender people has been implemented through regulation of bathroom use in public spaces, from schools to court houses. Though there has never been a criminal case filed against a transgender person for assaulting someone in a restroom, nor of a person pretending to be transgender in order to assault someone in a restroom, sixteen state legislatures throughout the country have attempted to pass bills prohibiting gender nonconforming Americans from using restrooms based on their gender identity (La Ganga, 2016; Libresco, 2016). Percelay (2015 June) notes that in the seventeen school districts attempting to enact protections for transgender students, none report problematic incidents that imply risk to cisgender students. Alternatively, in North Carolina, 88% of gender nonconforming students in grades K-12 reported harassment ranging from physical assault to verbal abuse (Grant et. al, 2011). In 2016 the city of Charlotte, NC implemented a city ordinance that protected transgender citizens’ right to use restrooms based on their gender identity, specifically with students in mind. In response, North Carolina’s state government successfully passed a law with the intent of protecting cisgender citizens from transgender citizens seeking to do so.

House Bill 2 (HB 2), also known as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act of 2016, legally binds local boards of education and public agencies to designate that multiple occupancy bathrooms are for use based only on “biological sex” (Part 1, Section 1.2b & Section 1.3b). HB 2 defines “biological sex” as “The physical condition of being male or female, which is stated on a person’s birth certificate” (Part 1, Section 1.2). The law also stipulates that citizens of North Carolina may “seek, obtain, and hold employment without discrimination or abridgment on the basis of… biological sex,” amending the distinction of protections from discrimination by the word “sex” alone; thus limiting municipal governments from passing protections for transgender students based on the ambiguity of the term “sex.” The act was made law in North Carolina on March 23, 2016.

The three Republican sponsors of HB 2, Bob Steinburg, Julia Howard, and Dan Bishop, as well as their supportive colleagues, cited maintaining the privacy of women in restrooms as their main reason for implementing HB 2. Julia Howard quotes Senator Phil Berger on her website, “The idea that grown men and young girls should use the same bathroom and middle school boys and girls should share locker facilities defies common sense and puts children and families at risk. This is crazy” (Howard). Similarly, Dan Bishop, HB 2’s most stalwart defender, writes that House Bill 2 would rectify, “the deeply disturbing blunder by the City Council, which by its plain language purports to ban separate bathrooms for males and females, threatening havoc upon thousands of business establishments and the privacy interests of Charlotte’s women and families” (Bishop, 2016). Further, Bishop is quoted by Morrill (2016) as stating, “A small group of far-out progressives should not presume to decide for us all that a cross-dresser’s liberty to express his gender nonconformity trumps the right of women and girls to peace of mind.” Three important social implications are made in these statements: first, that transgender women are not women, and therefore must be men; second, characterization of men as predators toward young girls; third, that blurring segregation between the sexes is a threat to “children and families.” The threat of men entering women’s bathrooms is characterized as physical in these laws and the statements defending them, yet transgender women (and transgender men) have been using bathrooms based on their gender identity for as long as bathrooms have been segregated by gender, without harm to cisgender citizens. Given this, it is reasonable to argue that the real threat of sex and gender desegregation is to norms, not to physical safety or privacy.

Upon media analysis of transgender-inclusive legislation from 2006-2010, Schilt and Westbrook (2015) found that

“Opponents of transgender recognition often brought up the specter of sexual predators in sex-segregated spaces as an argument against the passage of transgender rights legislation. Interestingly, such fears centered exclusively on women’s spaces, particularly restrooms…  they often conflate “sexual predators” (imagined to be deviant men) and transgender women (imagined to be always male). This exclusive focus on “males” suggests that it is genitals—not gender identity and expression—that are driving what we term “gender panics”” (p. 27).

Throughout the analysis done by Schilt and Westbrook, as well as commentary by legislators in North Carolina, very little attention is paid to transgender men. Further, there is no evidence that transgender people have a connection to predatory behavior, and in fact evidence shows trans folks are more likely to be the victims of sexual violence than their cisgender peers. Therefore, the question becomes: why is legislation being created to protect cis women from transgender women? This question is particularly interesting when presented in the context of a society where violence against women is perpetrated with notable frequency by cisgender men, with low rates of conviction for those crimes. One conclusion that can be drawn is that these pieces of legislation do not seek to protect citizens from rape or assault, but rather from gender deviance and impurity.

Cavanagh (2010) writes,

By reading another person as ‘perverse’ or ‘paedophilic’ because of the person’s gender identity, and simultaneously appealing (explicitly or implicitly) to the ‘vulnerability’, ‘impressionability,’ and ‘sexual innocence’ of children, parents and caregivers re-entrench the importance of the nuclear family, its heterosexual and reproductive mission, and concordant threat posed by the gender- or sexually dissident subject. Gender impurity here becomes a threat…

The insistence on protection of women by the legislators behind HB 2 embodies the ways that the law upholds patriarchy in America. As transgender activist Brynn Tannehill writes,

“Transgender people represent an imminent threat to many of the patriarchal power structures and arguments that support them. We blur the lines of what it supposedly “means” to be a man or a woman; we obliterate conventional definitions of sexual orientation and sexuality; we lie at the intersection of so many forms of oppression (sexism, homophobia, racism) that successfully taking on transgender issues makes inroads into many of their strongholds” (2014).  

The criminalization of bathroom use by gender identity is not one that seeks to protect the safety of all citizens–such as laws against harassment, assault, and sexual violence already seek to do–but are a means of using the legal system to maintain oppression and hierarchical structures which depend on the existence of two distinct sexes with distinct characteristics. While these structures require the majority of Americans to believe in a bipolar understanding of sex and gender, there are a minority of Americans who also see sex and gender as issues of moral importance. It is that moral position which is the difference between maintaining social norms out of ignorance, and actively creating a system which leads to violence and oppression.

Gender and Right Wing Authoritarian Christian Fundamentalists

A significant amount of research has been done about the relationships between in-groups (those who define social norms) and out-groups (those who deviate from social norms), and what leads them to value those within the in-group, in our case cisgender citizens, or disparage those in the out-group, i.e. gender nonconforming citizens. Research has shown that people are more likely to favor opinions which reinforce their in-group identity (Vignoles, Golledge, Regalia, Manzi, & Scabini, 2006) and show favoritism for in-group members, than they are to take harmful actions against out-group members (Hewstone, 2002; Tajfel, 1970). Yet, there are instances of in-groups actively using their power and advantage to discriminate against out-groups, such as in the case of HB 2. Parker and Janoff-Bulman (2013) found that

“…there may be at least one category of group membership that necessarily entails outgroup derogation, and that is the case of morality-based groups… We react to those whose moral convictions differ from our own with intolerance, a strong desire for social and physical distance, and low levels of cooperativeness and goodwill… Disagreements in the domain of morality not only lead to a deceased ability to resolve differences but also to a loss of concern with procedural safeguards (e.g., due process of law) when pursuing ends consistent with one’s own moral position” (p. 82-83).

The sponsors of HB 2, which all profess right-wing affiliations and membership to churches within the Protestant sect (Howard; Bishop; Steinburg, 2010), take specific moral positions in regard to sex, sexual orientation, and gender. Given the positions of these individuals as defined by threats to religious freedom and family values which should not be tolerated, I’ve associated them with two often overlapping groups: Right-Wing Authoritarian personality and Christian fundamentalism. Crawford and Pilinski (2014) describe Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) as “a belief that the world is a dangerous place, full of threats to both the individual and the group,” which strongly predicts attitudes on sociocultural political issues (p. 558). According to their research, political intolerance by RWAs results from perceived normative threat. Further, groups that emphasize the importance of “cultural traditions, legitimate authorities, and transcendent moral beliefs” are most often against social change and ambiguity (Chambers, Schlenker, and Collisson, 2012, p. 147).  There may be little surprise then, that RWA personalities are often connected to Christian fundamentalism, defined by Kelstedt and Smidt as  “a subgroup within evangelicalism that accepts biblical authority, salvation through Christ, and a commitment to spreading the faith. [Fundamentalists] defend these beliefs militantly” (1991, p. 260). Fundamentalist Christianity, while evangelical, can be distinguished from evangelical Christianity in its greater emphasis on conservatism and authoritarianism (Moyers, 1994).  The word fundamentalist has its origins in a Protestant text about orthodoxy published in the United States in the early 20th Century called The Fundamentals, which illustrated the “Fundamentals of the Faith from which no deviation could be tolerated” (Zakaullah, 2003, p. 446). Both RWAs and Christian fundamentalists take positions which perceive deviance from morality as threats, which should not be tolerated politically or socially.

At the root of each piece of legislation in the United States which regulates bathroom use based on “biological sex” is a legal organization called Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which authored a document recommending language for just such legislation. The language suggested by ADF is replicated throughout each “bathroom bill” being proposed throughout the United States (Percelay, 2015 November).  Alliance Defending Freedom describes its origins in 1994, the middle of a decade led by Democrats, as “the Christian community gain[ing] growing awareness that the threats to its freedom were multiplying. The legal system, which was built on a moral and Christian foundation, had been steadily moving against religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family”; ADF describes their mission as “defending our most cherished birthright–religious freedom” (Alliance).  In regard to the bills they promote, ADF legal counsel Kellie Fiedorek stated, “If the right to privacy means anything, it certainly means that women and girls should not be compelled to undress, shower, or use the restroom in the presence of men. This is just common sense” (Poulson, 2016). In another article, their staff writer states, “No child should be forced into an intimate setting – like a bathroom or a locker room – with a child of the opposite sex. Our model policy provides a solution that prevents children from being exposed to threats to their privacy and safety” (Sharp, 2016). Senior Counsel for ADF, Jeremy Tedesco, writes, “…boys changing clothes in girls’ locker rooms and vice versa?  How can this be a good idea?  Underage indecent exposure is now a social good?  Creating an atmosphere that could result in sexual assaults committed by minors is sound educational policy?” (2013). While ADF’s website argues that the proposed bills are not about transgender individuals but rather about allowing people of the opposite sex (specifically men and boys) to be seen in “private” public spaces, all of the proposed bills specifically allow exceptions for those in need of assistance–therefore, men are explicitly allowed to enter women’s restrooms with women and children, in order to assist their daughters or mothers in using the restroom. ADF’s position is built on rhetoric of privacy and safety from the “threat” of young girls and women being “exposed” to men and boys, under the presumption that the mere presence of opposite sex individuals leads to sexual assault or sexual conduct of any sort. Further, that the sight of genitalia not matching one’s own is a violation of privacy, while the sight of same-sex genitalia does not. As Schilt and Westbrook (2015) point out, opponents to transgender protections portray males as the potential protectors of vulnerable family members–such as wives, mothers, and children–and a sexual threat to women and children who are not related to them. Transgender women, as people who may have pensies, are characterized as “really men” and are therefore a threat (p. 31). The position of ADF, and fundamentalist Christians at large, hinges on the biblical definition of the nuclear family as a male husband, female wife, and innocent children, with sex as a mode of either reproduction or sin (Mohl, 2015). This orientation toward sex and gender paradoxically centers males as both the superior protectors and the dominant aggressors, both the saviors and threats to the purity of women and children. Throughout the discussion of opposite-sex bathroom use, little is said about transgender men who, according to this position, are likely considered impotent and harmless females who, understandably, would prefer to be men.

In order to understand how this level of religious dogmatism became a powerful enough force in American politics as to not only create nearly identical legislation across seventeen states regulating bathrooms by sex, but also to have these pieces of legislation pass until ultimately being stopped by governors in all but one state, we have to look at the history of Christian fundamentalism in American politics. Muhammad Arif Zakaullah (2003) links the arrival of Christian fundamentalists into American politics to the 1950’s and 60’s, with the legislation of desegregation, the end of school sponsored prayer, and the legal right of women to obtain abortions (p. 450). In response to what they perceived to be liberal control of moral issues, fundamentalists, such as Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, and Jimmy Swaggart, mobilized fundamentalists as a force against immorality and away from secularism. In the 1980’s, the Republican Party saw private sector fundamentalists as a means of gaining a majority; strategists created a platform of pro-family values that were anti-homosexual and anti-abortion. Republicans supported Jerry Falwell’s establishment of the Moral Majority (MM), an organization that exerted political influence on Washington for “spiritual and moral direction” to “fight pornography, homosexuality… and immorality in school textbooks” (p. 473). Republican support of Christian fundamentalists, and the fundamentalists’ disappointment in Republican’s focus on free market politics rather than moral issues, led to direct political participation by fundamentalists. Conservative Protestants entered Congress in force in the late 80’s and early 90’s. In addition, fundamentalists created and continued organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom, to influence the Democratic leadership of the 90’s. For example, pressure from the Christian right influenced President Clinton’s position about gay men in the military to a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” According to Zakaullah,

“…many bills were deliberately designed to be extremist, so that many liberal and moderate law makers would not vote for them, and hence it would ignite the anger of those evangelicals who sympathised with the fundamentalists, but were not themselves active. These repeated defeats would raise temperatures, and lead to action by sympathisers in the form of both money and men” (p. 479).

The involvement of Christian fundamentalists in politics is evident today in the introduction of bills which reinforce traditional Christian definitions of sex, sexuality, gender roles, family positioning, and religious freedom–including widespread anti-abortion legislation, active attempts to prevent same-sex marriage by appealing to states’ rights, and now regulations on bathroom use. Though Christian fundamentalists are not the majority of Americans, or even of Christians, using rhetoric that implies an imminent threat allows them to exploit average Americans’ fears and normative insecurity about sex and gender roles to gain support. They position themselves as the defenders of American traditions and religious freedom, which creates a sense of security and order in the face of ambiguity. Bills that prevent integration between gender nonconforming Americans and cisgender Americans will only lead to greater misunderstanding and insecurity, to be further exploited by the Christian right. These efforts to marginalize gender nonconforming citizens through rhetoric of threat, will ultimately have dire physical and emotional consequences for transgender Americans.


The monetary and political power of Christian fundamentalists in America exploits the fears of Americans who are not fundamentalists, but who do not understand gender fluidity nor its relationship to sex or sexual orientation and therefore see transgender individuals as a threat to social norms which provide order. By framing segregation of people by biological sex as protection from the threat of sexual violence, privacy, and implied purity, fundamentalists fuel the violence acted out against transgender individuals in public and private spaces. Even if legislation does not pass, or meets popular discontent and civil action, the rhetoric of the threat of integration based on biological sex for the protection of transgender rights creates an environment of abuse, oppression, and social marginalization for all people who fail to conform to strict gender norms.

Pettigrew, Christ, Wagner, and Stellmacher (2007) conclude that while authoritarians avoid inter-group friendships, inter-group contact in neighborhoods, at work, or in public spaces leads to a decrease in prejudice. Though Parker (2013) would likely argue that differences in morality between groups makes their conflicts intractable by requiring opposition, Christian fundamentalists are not the majority–instead, they have accumulated power and resources through the exploitation of normative insecurity. If normative insecurity can be reduced by integration, Christian fundamentalists aligned with the Republican party may lose their ability to insert strict gender norms and the oppression they create, into American policy. The issue of bathroom use by gender identity rather than biological sex is not one of religious freedom, even if it may be framed as such. Rather, it is an issue based on misinformation, ambiguity, and segregation. More research should be done about how education about the fluidity and nature of sex, gender, and sexual orientation might mitigate fear of those who fail to conform to present norms. Though fundamentalist Christians will continue to block education about sex in schools, the majority of Christians, as well as other faiths and secular groups may have hope if they cooperate and seek intergroup integration and understanding.   Continue reading “A Moral Threat to Gender Norms?: Linking Christian Fundamentalism to Intolerance of Transgender Americans”


To the People Who Worry About What My Tattoos Will Look Like at 80:

I haven’t been here in a while, I’ve been busy with other things–but I needed a forum to address the people who find it necessary to inquire about what I’ll look like, with my arm covered in ink, when I’m 80-years-old. To them, to you, for myself, I say:

When I’m older, I want to look like I’ve lived. I want scars from my adventures, wrinkles from my often furrowed brow, crows-feet from my smiles and my discernment and, yes, I want to have ink–wrinkled or otherwise–that says my passions are a part of me. That art is a part of me as much my wispy grey hair, curled and calloused hands, and my age spots that I hope will be near my eyes.

I want to look like I’ve made decisions not based on how I will appear when I’m 80, but who I want to be when I’m 80. And who I want to be is a wiser, calmer, kinder, more experienced version of myself.

When I’m 80, I’ll look like I’ve fucked up a few times. I’ll look like I’ve made mistakes, I’ve taken chances, I’ve hit some walls and survived. I’ll also look like I’ve made choices in the moment at the same time as I made commitments that will last a lifetime. I hope I will look like I tried for everything I ever wanted. I want to look like I cared about something other than myself. I want my truest loves–art, literature, friends, the outdoors–to be a part of me. I want to walk like I’ve been down many roads and I’m looking for new ones. And, yes, I want to have expressed who I am in every way I could, without concern for how I appear to anyone else.

So, don’t you worry. When I am 80, my skin will be covered in the worn down ink I’ve had pressed into me these last few years. That ink will have shifted as I shift, will have grown as I’ve grown, will age like my wisdom and kindness does. It’s true–my skin won’t stay this shape forever–but neither will yours. Someday, you will be 80-years-old and your skin will have aged with you, whether it is inked or not.

My skin tells a story of where I’ve been, of who and what I love, of the way I live, and the chances I take. When I think of how I will look when I’m 80, I can’t help but smile and wonder what my story will look like.

Q: What can we do to protect young men of color?

“I insist that the irrelevance of black life has been drilled into this country since its infancy, and shall not be extricated through the latest innovations in Negro Finishing School. I insist that racism is our heritage, that Thomas Jefferson’s genius is no more important than his plundering of the body of Sally Hemmings, that George Washington’s abdication is no more significant than his wild pursuit of Oney Judge, that the G.I Bill’s accolades are somehow inseparable from its racist heritage. I will not respect the lie. I insist that racism must be properly understood as an Intelligence, as a sentience, as a default setting to which, likely until the end of our days, we unerringly return.” –Ta-Nehisi Coates, On the Killing of Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn

There is so much talk about how the parents of young black men can protect them from the fates of Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant III, Sean Bell, and the thousands of young men killed for the supposed threat they inherited with the color of their skin. Yet, there is far too little conversation about how we can prevent white men from shooting those same young men. Parents are responsible for protecting their children from oncoming cars or eating too much candy or falling off their bicycles. But it is a particular brand of cruelty to allow the mothers and fathers of young black men to bear the burden of protecting their children from the irrational, violent reactions of grown men, while sparing the parents of young white men, and the authorities in charge of public safety, the responsibility of preventing those same irrational, violent reactions.

Let’s stop talking about how young men of color should change their behavior to shield themselves from the possibility that some white male with a gun might decide to shoot them. Let’s stop telling young black men to turn their music down. To keep their hands exposed. To pull down their hoodies. To dress differently. To speak differently. To keep silent. Let’s stop telling young men of color not to react when someone makes wildly uneducated assumptions based on their appearance. Let’s stop giving young men of color the responsibility to protect themselves from a violence that our society created and has refused to dismember, piece by disgusting piece.2

We (the privileged, the electorate, the white, the outspoken, the aware, the parents, the adults) are responsible for protecting the people with whom we share this country.

So, what can we do to protect young men of color from violence?

Most solutions, if discussed at all, focus on the justice system—how can we make sure these armed white men are prosecuted and convicted appropriately? How can we make their punishments suit the crime? Part of the problem with these discussions is that you can’t use punishment as a deterrent for reactionary crimes. When a white man shoots a black man in the moment there is no thought to the potential consequences presented by the law. Yes, appropriately sentencing white on black crimes would take away the general sense that white men can literally get away with murder. Perhaps that would take some of the edge off of the arrogance some white men find in aiming a gun at another human. But, most of the time, the moment happens too fast. The violent action is done in a split second of anger, fueled by unconscious beliefs about race, entitlement, and how to control a situation.

What we need to address most are the instincts in the moment. Instant reactions are much harder to change than premeditated crimes.

There are two major problems that I can see, which contribute to the overwhelming problem of white violence against black men: first, the conscious or unconscious biases against black men, perpetuated by the media; second, the proliferation of guns into the hands of violent humans. Finally, there’s the problem of violence itself, as a solution to conflict. I’ve thought about a few ways to address these problems, but I want experts, gun owners, young black men, mothers and fathers, all to think about this and come up with solutions that do not fall on the shoulders of the victims and their parents. These are my ideas to get us started, but what I want is dialogue. I want to find an answer to this question and I want the best, most viable answer to fall into the hands of the people who can make it happen.

First, to protect against average gun wielding citizens, we should require that every person to own a gun earn a license, rather than simply buy one. Gun owners should be required to take a test for accuracy and safety, which must be renewed with similar testing in increments of no more than five years.  As part of this testing, every person should be required to pass a background check and attend at least one class about unconscious biases and how they can affect the emotional response of gun use1. We should require that every potential gun owner take a test that measures their unconscious biases (or implicit associations), and privately receive the results, so that they have the tools to understand their own instincts should they face a potentially violent moment. Why? Because statistics prove that black men are more likely misidentified as having a gun than white men. That matters if you’re going to hand someone a gun. Once a person becomes aware of what unconscious biases they possess, they’re more likely to think about why they think someone is a threat, to question their own judgment, and to think before they react on those unconscious thoughts. That doesn’t help us with consciously racist individuals, but a minor psych evaluation might.

While I realize that many will argue that the second amendment protects Americans from regulations as strict as these, let me assure you that the second amendment was not intended to protect the rights of maniacs who shoot unarmed civilians. The second amendment protects citizens from their governments, or other armed citizens, not to make sure the guy angry about the too-loud music can shoot someone in public. If you go through the proposed steps, you’ll have your gun and there’s your second amendment right.

Driving a motorized vehicle requires a driver’s test, driver’s safety education, and renewal. It is absurd that no such requirements are in place when purchasing a deadly weapon which, may I add, has no other purpose than to kill or injure.  And to anyone who would argue that it is too much of a hassle, or too much to ask of everyone who wants a gun—I ask you, why are a few hours of your time more important than the preservation of other human lives? Are the countless hours of erased time belonging to those expended lives worth less than the few it will take you to learn how to use your gun? If your answer is yes, you are part of the problem.

To protect against the misuse of authority by public safety workers, as well as the danger of internalized associations, any security officer carrying a weapon should routinely be required to attend educational seminars about racial bias. Police officers should be routinely tested for their own unconscious biases and work with a mental health professional to confront those biases if they are unusually apparent. Police officers are in such a uniquely emotionally vigilant position that I find it difficult to imagine their mental state on a day-to-day basis. Unlike most Americans, police officers face the question is this person armed? on a daily basis, and regardless of physical threat, are submerged into vicious situations every day.4 Because of that, we should be offering police officers more mental healthcare, more paid leave, and encourage police officers to routinely take a step back from that environment. Too often we have expectations that our police officers should always be ready, aggressive, and express our hyper-masculine brand of courage. In order for there to be any change for men of color in facing the police, we also need to protect the minds of our police officers from becoming so warped that they would shoot a man in the back as he lies face down, as was the case for Oscar Grant III.

Our country needs to get behind a media campaign that will upend the current image of young black men as “thugs” who represent imminent danger, regardless of their actions.3,5,6  In Jordan Davis’ case, Lizette Alvarez writes, “The prosecutors portrayed Mr. Dunn as a man who felt threatened right away because he viewed the teenagers as “gangsters.” Mr. Strolla[, the defense lawyer,] disputed that notion and said Mr. Dunn has maintained it was the violent rap subculture, not race, that influenced Mr. Davis’s behavior.” Whether or not Dunn shot Jordan Davis because he was black or because he listened to rap music (come on, really?), the result of unconscious bias is the same. Dunn found it within his emotional and physical ability to shoot at three young men, killing one of them, because of preconceived ideas he held about them based on no direct evidence of physical threat.

In order to change this common implicit association between black men and violence, there needs to be a massive overhaul on education about racial bias. Every middle school and high school should require students to take a seminar on at least race and gender in the media. Such a seminar should address how unconscious racial biases are generated from the media we consume every day, and teach young people (who will eventually grow up to be, or to face, these gun wielding maniacs) how to identify their own biases and the biases presented in media.

There needs to be a widespread media campaign, targeted at people in positions of power and authority, representing the diversity of young men of color, of people within inner-cities, and of minorities overall. These campaigns should take real examples of media bias and turn them around, showing the very people whose biases affect the justice system most directly, that young black men are not thugs, that young black men like music, art, sports, science, literature—that these men want to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, pastors, and fathers. We need to intentionally place young black men in positions to create this campaign. Together, we need to proliferate the message that there is hope, kindness, and courage to be found in our young men of color. Because that is the truth and that is what this country needs to see in order to replace negative racial bias with necessary, life-saving pause and consideration of who the person on the other end of the gun is–a living, complex human being.

Television producers, writers, directors, journalists, and news anchors can help by looking more closely at the content that is produced at their place of business. Making sure that images of black men are not associated with every single violent story. Making sure that if we talk about white offenders as sympathetic, we offer the same window of interest into offenders of color. The characterization of people of color should be just as interesting and diverse as that of the white characters, as should be the roles. Compassionate leading roles should be given to men of color. Stories about white crime should be put in the same terms as black crime and vice versa. When reporting about police brutality, sympathy should be applied to the victim more often, or just as often, as it is to the officer in question.

Finally, we need to start to confront the human instinct to react violently to conflict. We need to give our white children the tools to face a problem with rational thought, conversation, or walking away. Rather than bucking up young men to fight back or exert their control, we need to instill a sense of compassion and forgiveness. If we expect the mothers and fathers of men of color to teach them to avoid white men, to obey without question, to keep their hands in our sights, we better expect the mothers and fathers of white men to teach to their children to respect others, react with kindness and compassion, or to walk away from a confrontation rather than engage in violence.

Let’s stop ending this dialogue with, “Well, if he wasn’t acting that way then–” or “He should have known better.” Unarmed civilians should not have to change their appearance or behavior to prevent themselves from being shot. The way that this conversation goes, every single time, is an atrocity in and of itself. Rather than focusing on the criminality of the shooter, we focus on the appearance or supposed personality of the victim, who can no longer represent himself. Ultimately, we decide that the widespread deaths of young men of color is too large a problem or too rare a problem or not our problem at all. We leave the responsibility on the shoulders of mothers and fathers of men of color, expecting them to harden their children against us, to expect us to shoot them down on a whim. Rather than teaching our white sons and our white mothers and fathers to be kind, to react nonviolently, to understand diversity, to see beauty in a stranger who is different—we accept that we, the privileged many, can get away with murder and that is fine.

So, I ask you—how can we protect our young men of color from ourselves, our implicit associations, and the misguided, deadly actions of our uncles and our husbands and our future children?

Sources and Resources: 

  1. Payne, Keith. “Prejudice and Perception: The Role of Automatic and Controlled Processes in Misperceiving a Weapon,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 81 (2001): 181.
  2. Rothenberg, Paula S. “The Social Construction of Difference.” Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study. New York: Worth, 2010. N. pag. Print.
  3. Greco Larson, Stephanie. African American Mass Publics in the News.  “Media & Minorities: The Politics of Race in News and Entertainment.” 2006.  p94. Print.
  4. Correll, Joshua, Bernadette Park, Charles M. Judd, and Bernd Wittenbrink. “The Police Officer’s Dilemma: Using Ethnicity to Disambiguate Potentially Threatening Individuals.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83.6 (2002): 1314-329. Print.
  5. Gilliam, Franklin D and Shanto Iyengar, “Prime Suspects: The Influence of Local Television News on the Viewing Public,” American Journal of Political Science 44 (2000): 560-73.
  6. Muhammad, Kahlil Gibran. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. First Harvard Press. 2011. Print.

Orange is the New Black: Entertainment Gets Some Things Right for Once

I was skeptical of Orange is the New Black from the first time I saw Taylor Schilling next to Uzo Aduba (“Crazy Eyes” aka Susan) in the Netflix header. Alas, I fell ill for several consecutive days, and the convenience of a Netflix series overtook me. By the end, I wanted to stand up enthusiastically, clapping, and shouting at the screen–“HOLY SHIT YOU DID IT RIGHT!!”

OitNB had so much potential to crash and burn under the weight of racial stereotyping, the objectification of felons, prison rape scenarios, and the misconstruction of sexuality. It did not succeed on every front. The prison environment within OitNB is scary, but still paints an unrealistic picture of the reality of the prison industrial complex. The show does very little for the discussion of sexuality when it refers to the main character as previously gay, though the confusion about “what” she is does reflect the general ignorance and misunderstanding about human sexuality.  It also does not develop its Hispanic characters nearly as well as its white and black ones, and does absolutely nothing for the Asian and the notably labeled “Other” populations.

Where OitNB succeeds the most is in its subtle discussion of race, and its portrayal of a transgender character.

In the first few episodes of the show, the fear of stereotypes and overly grotesque content is enough to almost make you turn it off. But therein lies its brilliance. The longer you watch, the more masterful the show becomes as the back story to each character is revealed. The main character is set up as a stark interruption into the tales of the more interesting, more loveable, and more dynamic characters from different backgrounds. Though Piper is set up as the lead, her whiny, entitled character is the epitome of white privilege and the writers do her no favors. By the end, you will see her as the side story, the exception not the rule, to a cast of beautiful, interesting, and dynamic women.


Laverne Cox is brilliant as Sophia Burset, a black transgender woman and inmate in a women’s correctional facility. OitNB gives us Sophia’s back story with incredible skill and grace. Sophia, once a firefighter and known to her peers as a man, uses credit card fraud to pay for her transition. Post-transition, Sophia is caught and convicted, leaving her supportive though struggling wife and son behind. Despite the discrimination she still faces, Sophia’s character is proud, positive, and complex. She is not portrayed as depressed or confused–and the show shines a light on the most intimate violations of human experience within healthcare for transgender patients. As the prison’s hairdresser, Sophia dispenses advice to her peers and earns respect, trust, and the love of the audience. Most impressive about OitNB is the actress that plays Sophia–Laverne Cox–who is also transgender in real life. Minorities are rarely hired in the entertainment industry to play large roles (think Johnny Depp in Lone Ranger). Instead, the industry hires hetero normative actors and disguises them as another race, gender, or sexuality. Rather than promote yet another caricature of transgender people and give a leg-up to an actor who could play any number of roles, OitNB promoted a transgender actress to play a transgender role, successfully making us laugh for her, cry for her, and adore her.

Equally impressive were the performances of Samira Wiley (Poussey) and Danielle Brooks (Taystee). Samira Wiley is by far and away my favorite actress and character on the show, though her role is relatively small. Poussey is in Litchfield for an unknown crime, with a sentence of six years. She is at once beautiful, smart, supportive, fierce, and hilarious.  Her character tells it straight to all of the other characters, especially her best friend Taystee. When Taystee returns to prison after a short stint of freedom, Poussey gives her a heart-wrenching talking-to, and then provides unconditional support. And when Wiley sings Amazing Grace in the last episode–you will crumble, or I will call you heartless (just kidding, kind of).

As for Taystee–she is one of the first inmates we see. Her story gives us a window into the complexity of prison for black women. While in the first episodes we see her as loud, slightly obnoxious, and somewhat stereotypical, her story unfolds to provide a much deeper, dynamic character. Taystee is due for early release on good behavior and goes through the process of preparing for parole, including having a hilarious but disturbing discussion with the other woman about how she should do her hair to have a better chance at release. The conversation unfolds to the conclusion that Taystee should look like the “white girls best friend” role so often portrayed in entertainment (and in OitNB). Ultimately, the women settle on Viola Davis as a role model. The women also discuss whether or not a parole board made of whites or blacks would be more advantageous–concluding that a black board will treat her more harshly, in an attempt to seem unbias, while a white board will offer her leniency to feed their “savior” complexes. This conversation might be the most impressive writing of the entire show. While it will make you laugh, it will also unsettle you in your seat.

Very shortly after her release,  Taystee returns to Litchfield. She describes life outside prison in accurate, painful details–no way of getting a job, no place to live, constant observation by parole officers, and constant fear of return. Taystee finally reveals to Poussey that she returned on purpose, expressing–“I know the rules here. I know where to go and when to go there. I have a bed and something to eat.” Taystee’s story is too familiar for parolee’s who adapt to prison life and then have trouble facing the realities of their old life with the added struggle of a criminal record.

Beyond these amazing characters, the show examines the complicated ways that women end up in prison, the racial segregation within the prison system, and the means of survival that inmates must undertake to remain mentally and physically capable. The show casts a light on the sexism and sexual violence perpetuated by males both within and without the prison system (there are really no positive male role models in this show–for once). Drug addiction, solitary confinement, evangelical zeal, and lack of rehabilitative resources within the prison system are also addressed with both hilarious and painful subtlety that is brilliant in its execution.

I highly recommend this show–and enduring the first few episodes and seemingly gratuitous sex and ickyness will lead to a hilarious, emotional, disturbing encounter with a great cast of characters.

The Photos included in the post do not belong to me. Please click them to lead to original sources.

Racism without Racists: giving voice to injustice in a “color blind” society

Let me start with the preface, I am white–not color blind.

I believe that our society is as far from colorblindness as it has ever been. The fear of being seen as Racist has overpowered the fear of racism itself, discreetly protecting our racism with “color blind” laws and law enforcement. By using terms like “color blindness” we are protecting institutionalized racism from much needed reform–not making racism disappear.

The biggest question for me, when faced with statistics that show obvious racial bias, is: why? Who benefits from a racial caste system, and what would inspire anyone to support one? I imagined a bunch of powerful white men sitting around a table, smoking cigars, talking about how they could “keep the black man down,” as it happened when racial discrimination was formed [7] and absolutely rejected the possibility that such a club could exist today. No one is that racist anymore (I told myself). But the answer is much more dangerous than that. While I now have no doubt that people exist who see racial discrimination and benefit from it, the core of the problem is even more malignant. The problem does not simply belong to a select few at the top. Racism belongs to all of us.

In a country that largely rejects open racial bias and considers racism a societal flaw and injustice, I often hear the claim: “But I/he/she/they/it is/am not a racist, so how can you say __________ is racism?” The obliteration and extinction of The Racist, will not end racism. One does not have to have intentional bias in order for racism to exist, nor for us to act with significant racial consequences. Studies presenting video game players with white and black men, some armed and some not, resulted in participants being more likely to mistake a black target as armed and a white target as unarmed. These results were the same for both white and black participants [1] [2]. Regardless of whether participants explicitly displayed racism, their implicit or internalized bias affected their external actions. In this case, to the point where innocent, unarmed black men would have been shot and armed white men would have held the participant at gunpoint. That is racism without racists, with fatal consequences.

As a result of shining light on the ugliness of racism, we have created an automatic defensive response that protects anyone from ever objectively or actively addressing persisting racism in our society.

If you have ever questioned whether or not an idea, institution, phrase, question, or relationship was racist, you will understand what I mean. Any person involved, regardless of how removed from the inquiry they are, will immediately cry in offense, “that’s not racist!” and either argue that the act is justified by other causes [10] or change the subject by way of their anger and frustration. As a result, our internalized fears of being considered racist has overpowered the fight to end racism. More recently, arguments that whites should not be made to feel guilty for past injustices has distanced racism from our present society and allows whites a simple defense—“I didn’t do it, so why am I to blame?”

That’s not to say that racism is a white issue. Just as often, minorities have deeply rooted biases about other minorities as well as whites. The difference, of course, is that political, economic, and judicial power is still largely in the hands of whites, giving whites more responsibility to check their internalized bias.

This is not about blame. It is bigger than blame. Institutionalized racism is about actions unconsciously informed by racially charged images. No one cares if you do or do not, should or should not, feel guilty. No one is saying that slavery or segregation were your fault. I am saying that in order to address a modern problem, causing the suffering and endangerment of a large group of people based on their race, we need to start protecting our reputations second and first and foremost protect our fellow citizens from injustice.

I was taught, according to society’s standards, that racism is wrong and that all people, regardless of their race are equal. I believe that and have always believed that. And yet, it was not uncommon to hear phrases like, “So there are black kids in your class?” or “The neighborhood is mostly black but we get along okay.” Or to hear the preface to a story, “I’m not racist but—”. I heard this kind of speech about race from people I admired, people who were educated, and people who openly decried racism, denied being racist at any accusation, and praised civil rights icons. If questions about institutionalized racism, or their own use of racially biased language, should arise–they would no doubt exclaim “But I’m not racist!” and be genuinely offended by the simple idea that they might possess racial bias.  Those exclamations always end the conversation or deteriorate the dialogue into a fight.

In addition to those intimate experiences, the media constantly conveys two contradictory messages. First, that racism is unjust and shameful. Second, that minorities, particularly blacks, are violent criminals, goofy and uneducated, and that their lives are only side stories relevant in their relationship to more important white issues. Crime is almost solely depicted as violent and almost always beside the image of a black man. Those messages were not unique to me or the media I consumed [3] [4] [9]. Resulting from these messages, I have racial bias. Do I believe that I am a racist? No. But I accept that internalized ideas of race do affect my behavior, however unconsciously, and that my desire to not be labeled a racist is not more important than having a conversation about eliminating racial bias from both private and federal institutions.

People like me, who grew up with these messages (or in worse post-segregation times like the 70’s and 80’s), run this country. Class is largely divided by race, with the most powerful wealthy being almost solely white men, and a significant portion of the impoverished made up of minorities [12]. The powerful elite are prosecutors, judges, legislators, and police officers and they are mostly white. While positions of complete disenfranchisement, such as the abject poor, prisoners, and parolees, are overwhelmingly occupied by minorities. Internalized bias informed by the media’s association between dark skin and criminality (or, in the case of The Racist–overt bias) give far too many people the explanation that the high conviction rate of racial minorities, is driven by character flaws, rather than institutionalized racism.

Despite evidence that blacks and whites commit crimes at the same rate, blacks face much harsher consequences at every single stage of our criminal justice system. Blacks are more often stopped and frisked, due to blind-eye discretion awarded to law enforcement [5], blacks are more often charged with additional crimes, due to the power awarded to prosecutors, and are more often convicted and harshly sentenced for the same reason. One study showed that blacks convicted of killing white victims were eleven times more likely to receive the death penalty than whites who killed black victims. Further, blacks are more than six times as likely as whites to be sentenced to prison for identical crimes, with prosecutors describing blacks’ crimes as motivated by “internal personality flaws such as disrespect,” and whites’ crimes justified by “external conditions and circumstances” [6] [11].

Racially biased institutions come from two sources: internalized racism (discussed above) and political convenience.

When political power and influence is in the hands of a mostly-white, mostly-affluent legislature and that same legislature is awarded significant power over the judicial branch, the risks of policing, enacting legislation, and punishing people living in certain places becomes very high. As a matter of convenience, the police have an enormous incentive to detain people who have no power over them, hold no risk of repercussions, and can pass easily and unnoticed through the system. If the police were to invade the suburbs in search of weapons or drugs, which they are equally likely to find there as in the inner-cities, the likelihood that they would step on a politician’s toes, or encounter a wealthy lawyer, or be met with someone aware of their rights would be vastly higher [6]. Further, there are far fewer consequences in passing regulation to limit the services available to groups not highly represented in congress, than it is to regulate the wealthy elite.

As a result, we have a system that rewards the prosecution and sacrifice of low-income minorities, and progresses the interests of high-income whites—without the presence of the Racist, which would have previously fed civil rights activists with someone to blame.

As it stands, the Supreme Court has protected these interests by ruling against arguments of racial bias. Just as we shout “I’m not racist!” and end a discussion, the Supreme Court has made several decisions—McCleskey v. Kemp, Armstrong V. United States—that require defendants to present evidence that intentional bias exists in their particular case by the prosecution, or they cannot make any claim that racism affected their conviction. This is a clear catch-22. The defendant is required to have proof that the person prosecuting them—who has every incentive not to provide that proof—acted with intent motivated by racial bias. Studies revealing clear racial bias in a particular state, district, or court have been rejected as evidence because the statistics were not relevant to the defendants’ particular case. So while no discretion in claims of racial bias are awarded to defendants (the victim), complete discretion is awarded to the prosecutors and law enforcement agents (the perpetrators of a racist system, however unintentional their actions may be) [6] [8]. In large part, these decisions are defended by the belief that if a precedent for racial bias arguments is set, the entire criminal justice system will be called into question and we will see countless appeals on that basis. My counter-argument: as it should be.

If enough studies exist (and they do) to prove that unintentional racial bias has infected our criminal justice system, resulting in catastrophic consequences for low-income and minority communities, then we should not just throw up our hands and say “it’s too much work to address that problem,” by instead declaring “I’m not racist and you can’t prove it!”

Once convicted, the quality of life and opportunity in communities with large populations of minorities significantly decreases. With a population of men far more likely to be convicted and receive a lengthy sentence, you create a neighborhood of one-income families, and one-parent households. As a result, you create a set of circumstances that is cyclical: the population is seen as criminal and is treated as such, the children do not have the benefits of two parents and two incomes, the city does not have the resources of a high-income community, each generation then returns to the happenstance of their fathers and mothers, while everyone with the power to change it cries—“But I’m not racist!” and “It’s their own fault!”

When fear of the Racist label, racialized media coverage, and convenience mentalities are coupled with the prevalent idea that all economic, social, and criminal circumstances are created by lack of self-discipline [10], we find ourselves in a country that perpetuates the poverty of minorities with criminalization. Racism without racists.

In order to end this cycle we need to do a few things, starting with whites setting aside our pride and discussing our own flaws. We need to end mandatory minimum sentences for drug charges based on a precedent of proportionality in relation to “cruel and unusual punishment.” We need to put a stop to leniency of discretion for law enforcement by requiring substantiated proof of reasonable suspicion for a search or arrest, rather than allowing officers to use vague charges to justify a search. We need to end leniency of discretion for prosecutors by disallowing trumped up charges and plea bargains based on mandatory minimums. We should require law enforcement to inform suspects of their rights to deny a search. We must create avenues to populate the legislative branch with a representative population, regardless of access to campaign funding. We should require law enforcement agencies to spend equal time and money investigating and patrolling all neighborhoods, regardless of influence or income.

At your next opportunity to cut a conversation short with the declaration, “I’m not racist!” or preface a statement with, “I’m not racist but,” I implore you to allow the conversation to go beyond your comfort. To explore your own internalized racism. To allow yourself to question whether tangible evidence is required for racism to be present.

Finally, leave room to consider that your offense is not more important than our collective progression toward an equal society. If you can rid yourself of a fear of blame, you and I can work together to put solutions into place, rather than bury them.

Continue reading “Racism without Racists: giving voice to injustice in a “color blind” society”

“Everyone is Now a Potential Terrorist,” by Henry A. Giroux

Today, I really wanted to write a piece about veterans affairs because several pieces of legislation are in Congress regarding how we (don’t) help our veterans. But, to be honest, I don’t know anything about veterans affairs, other than my father’s experience of not receiving any of the benefits promised to him when he left the Army. So, I went in search of someone smarter than me, some piece that I could share with you and educate myself with. On that journey, I found this piece (see excerpt below) by Dr. Henry Giroux, a cultural critic and published author. It really doesn’t have that much to do with veterans affairs, and when I began reading it, I was skeptical–it sounded like a lot of anti-establishment ranting (which I love but always question). But, the factual information is there. The bite of the piece is based on historical context and cultural evidence. It’s a wonderful read in its entirety, but I’ve included my favorite part below. This section is entitled, “Everyone is Now a Potential Terrorist.” Enjoy.

“…At the start of the second decade of the 21st century, young people all over the world are demonstrating against a variety of issues ranging from economic injustice and massive inequality to drastic cuts in education and public services. These demonstrations have and currently are being met with state-sanctioned violence and an almost pathological refusal to hear their demands.  More specifically, in the United States the state monopoly on the use of violence has intensified since the 1980s, and in the process, has been increasingly directed against young people, low-income whites, poor minorities, immigrants, and women. As the welfare state is hollowed out, a culture of compassion is replaced by a culture of violence, cruelty and disposability. Collective insurance policies and social protections have given way to the forces of economic deregulation, the transformation of the welfare state into punitive workfare programs, the privatization of public goods and an appeal to individual accountability as a substitute for social responsibility.

Under the notion that unregulated market-driven values and relations should shape every domain of human life, the business model of governance has eviscerated any viable notion of social responsibility while furthering the criminalization of social problems and cutbacks in basic social services, especially for the poor, young people and the elderly.[17] [18] Within the existing neoliberal historical conjuncture, there is a merging of violence and governance and the systemic disinvestment in and breakdown of institutions and public spheres that have provided the minimal conditions for democracy. This becomes obvious in the emergence of a surveillance state in which the social media not only become new platforms for the invasion of privacy, but further legitimate a culture in which monitoring functions are viewed as benign while the state-sponsored society of hyper-fear increasingly defines everyone as either a snitch or a terrorist. Everyone, especially minorities of race and ethnicity, now live under a surveillance panoptican in which “living under constant surveillance means living as criminals.”[18] [19]

As young people make diverse claims on the promise of a radical democracy, articulating what a fair and just world might be, they are increasingly met with forms of physical, ideological and structural violence.  Abandoned by the existing political system, young people in Oakland, California, New York City, Quebec and numerous other cities throughout the globe have placed their bodies on the line, protesting peacefully while trying to produce a new language, politics, imagine long-term institutions, and support notions of “community that manifest the values of equality and mutual respect that they see missing in a world that is structured by neoliberal principles.”[19] [20] In Quebec, in spite of police violence and threats, thousands of students demonstrated for months against a former right-wing government that wanted to raise tuition and cut social protections. These demonstrations are continuing in a variety of countries throughout the globe and embrace an investment in a new understanding of the commons as a shared space of knowledge, debate, exchange and participation.

Such movements, however diverse, are not simply about addressing current injustices and reclaiming space but also about producing new ideas, generating a new conversation and introducing a new political language. Rejecting the notion that democracy and markets are the same, young people are calling for an end to the poverty, grotesque levels of economic inequality, the suppression of dissent and the permanent war state.  They refuse to be defined exclusively as consumers rather than as workers, and they reject the notion that the only interests that matter are monetary. They also oppose those market-driven values and practices aimed at both creating radically individualized subjects and undermining those public spheres that create bonds of solidarity that reinforce a commitment to the common good. And these movements all refuse the notion that financialization defines the only acceptable definition of exchange, one that is based exclusively on the reductionist notion of buying and selling.”

–Dr. Henry Giroux, “The United States Is Awash in Public Stupidity, and Critical Thought Is Under Assault.” Veterans Today. July 27, 2013.

The Benefits of Fear Mongering: NSA Surveillance, The War on Terror, and the Violation of Human Rights

Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other… No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. –James Madison, “Political Observations,” April 20, 1795.

Just as the uproar in response to the virtual whistle blown by Edward Snowden has focused on the right of Americans to personal privacy, the much quieter response to atrocities committed by the United States in the name of stopping terrorism has largely focused on the right of American citizens to trial and sentencing. While Americans have every right to, and are completely justified in, being afraid of the surveillance and indefinite detention of American citizens, those same atrocities that we fear for ourselves are currently being acted out on foreign born people around the world in the name of counterterrorism. Not enough Americans have exercised their voices on behalf of the millions of world citizens being invasively monitored by the United States government, or for over 100,000 civilians who have died in the upheaval caused by our war on terror, or the hundreds of men indefinitely detained and tortured in remote and secret camps abroad.

Most Americans know nothing of who our enemy actually is in the War on Terror, beyond that he is Arab(ish) and Muslim(ish) and blows himself up, along with other innocent civilians. They hold him responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, but know little or nothing about the intent of that act, beyond its death toll for thousands of Americans. And yet, despite our lack of knowledge about our targets (or perhaps because of that lack of knowledge), we have allowed our government to kill, torture, hunt, and spy on him. The  elusiveness of this dark-skinned, narrow featured, long-bearded enemy of a different language and violent, unfamiliar religion has allowed the United States the freedom to wage endless, destructive war on foreign targets who may or may not have any intention of harming anyone on American soil. This war against Islamists should seem strange, if not all together frightening.

It should seem strange because the United States has supported al Qaeda in the past, when it was advantageous to our interests [19]. Now, with al Qaeda comprised of a core membership of some 200-1,000 members globally, we seek to destroy them with over 70,000 American troops currently placed on their doorstep for convenient destruction.

It should be strange because the United States has, in the past and present, done nothing to stop acts of genocide or civil war that claimed far more lives in a few short months than Islamic terrorism has in the last decade. Strange because in its history the United States itself has killed more civilians in attempts to control the global economy and global politics than al Qaeda ever has [20] [21]. Most disturbing, it should be strange that our war on terror resulted in 116, 657 civilian deaths by 2011, according to Wikileaks reports, while the attack on 9/11 took the lives of 2, 996 Americans [23].

When the war on terror began after 9/11, a prominent, highly vocal, painfully visual media campaign was waged by the Bush Administration and its supporters, both corporate and political, to instill in Americans a fierce sense of Nationalism and a fear of impending future attacks from Islamic terrorists. Since that time, fear has been used to justify external atrocities such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the extensive war in Afghanistan, the illegal use of drones in Pakistan, the rendition and torture of Islamists in Libya and throughout the Middle East, and the use of invasive surveillance tactics domestically and abroad.

There can be no doubt that Americans should be angry about the attack of 9/11 and seek justice. Or that the Americans sent overseas to fight our battles should be honored, respected, and welcomed home with a helping hand–they have sacrificed more than anyone should have ever asked of them.

But we should also be angry that the NSA has been collecting our data for as long as we have been producing it, while using it against individuals who dare show any sign of disagreement or dissent. We should be angry that the U.S. government has instilled us with the fear of a foreign enemy that we cannot name, or predict, or identify but has encouraged us to hate to the point of abuses against innocent Muslim Americans. We should be angry because they have justified inhumane, violent actions that protect their interests abroad in the name of protecting us, though thousands of Americans have died violently in that very fight. We should be angry that the U.S. government believes it is above international humanitarian law, and rather than presenting us with those guilty of the attacks on 9/11, of allowing us the respect and resolution of justice for their actions, they have assassinated, captured, and tortured unnamed and uncounted combatants with no intention to charge or try them. We should be angry that our fear has been used as an excuse to spend trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives to control the political outcome of foreign nations.

But, how can we be surprised when anyone who has lost a loved one to our war on terror retaliates in much the same way as we have to 9/11?

That is what the war has given us—all of us, regardless of our citizenship— marking it with the rubber stamp of security and the name tag of justice. It has given us enemies without names, justice without trials, and the violent destruction of humanity without the consideration of non-violent solutions.

Surveillance and the Violation of International Human Rights Law

The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other religions were converted) but rather its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do. –Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. 1996.

According to the Associated Press, the NSA has been tapping Trans-Atlantic Telecommunication fiber-optic cables carrying phone and internet data since the 1970’s. Foreign citizens are not protected by any privacy rights, and therefore the NSA need not ask for anyone’s permission to obtain personal data from these cables [4]. After all, the NSA was made to be internationally nosy.

Using those same fiber-optic cables, in addition to predator drones, Rivet Joint surveillance, and electronic devices found in Iraq, the United States has proceeded to gather or murder members of al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for 9/11, and anyone even tangentially associated with them. Though intelligence gathering has been a massive undertaking in wars in the Middle East, Major General Mark Schissler says that terrorists use the internet to send ideological messages, rather than to convey useful military data. The most valuable information acquired in Iraq has been found on papers, laptops, and hard disks in the possession of combatants captured on the ground [18]. According to experts interviewed by NPR, the intelligence gathered through telephone and internet surveillance, which most concerns Americans, is the least likely to result in actionable intelligence. Terrorists know they are being watched and listened to, and use code words and aliases to communicate over data-generating communications networks.

There are two kinds of human beings at the end of an intelligence gathering mission: those being spied on who do not know they are divulging valuable information about themselves or people they care about, and those who are compelled through various means to give up that information. For these people, there are basically four outcomes: never knowing they were being watched, an enormous payday in incentive funds that caused him/her to give up a friend or stranger, death or injury in an assassination attempt (either as a target or someone nearby), or detention and interrogation [18]. It is important to remember, if you have any interest in understanding the complexity of war, that the people at the other end of the data are humans as complicated, emotional, intelligent, diverse, and interesting as you or I. Just like you, they would be horrified to know they are being watched or tracked like animals being hunted. While some of them may be combatants, so are our soldiers. While their leaders may send them ideological messages of hate, so do ours to our soldiers. They are motivated by what we are motivated by: faith, honor, justice, God, money, family, hunger, love, hate, and fear.

In 2004, former Deputy Attorney General and current Director of the FBI James Comey explained the need for the indefinite detention of Jose Padilla. He explained that if Padilla were to be tried in our criminal justice system he would, “very likely have followed his lawyer’s advice and said nothing, which would have been his constitutional right. He would likely have ended up a free man,” and the government could not have gained vital information from him about al Qaeda or future terrorist plots. Jose Padilla is an American citizen who was militarily detained and tortured until tried in 2007. He was never charged with the plots to plant bombs that Comey suspected him of. He was, however, convicted of material support of terrorism overseas [12].

For many Americans, the fact that Comey would defend the indefinite military detention and torture of an American citizen, in violation of his fifth, sixth, and eighth amendment rights, will be completely outrageous and unjustifiable. Not because his detention was indefinite—he was part of al Qaeda!—or because he was tortured—We needed the information to protect ourselves!—or because he was denied a speedy trial in our criminal justice system—National Security secrets!—but because he was an American citizen. And American citizens are too good to be indefinitely detained or tortured—We have rights!

Well, America—so does everyone else. These rights are known as human rights and they are protected by international human rights law. Unfortunately, the United States has the largest military in the world and the largest economy. International rights organizations like the United Nations and International Criminal Court are underfunded and understaffed. Meanwhile the U.S. uses its surveillance machine to monitor officials across the globe—even, or especially, our allies. In that reality the United States seems to be above the system—choosing who qualifies as less than human and less deserving of basic human rights than anyone else.

If Jose Padilla could not have been proven guilty in a court of law, secret court or otherwise, he should have been set free. If we break from that very basic model of our entire justice system, we are not doing justice at all and everyone—American or otherwise—is at risk of being swept up for suspicion and held without proof, representation, or charge.

Like FBI Director Comey, the United States government—and apparently much of the American population—believes that the inherent rights of Americans are paramount to the right to life of any other person on the planet. Further, that the protection of Americans against even the most unlikely or fabricated foes justifies the indefinite detention of hundreds, the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of civilians for occupation, the torture of prisoners for the tiniest scrap of information, and the secret rendition of suspected terrorists supported by a shred of evidence. Despite these most vile, invasive, dehumanizing tactics used by the United States in its exercise of power and control over international political and economic interests, Americans’ voices are crying—“But what about my rights!

Every single time I hear a cry for more American rights in the war on terror I get the distinct sour scent of death on my tongue. Being fine with surveillance so long as it isn’t against you, being fine so long as it is used to protect you against possible violent attacks despite the violence done to others in your name, is like going to the gallows to see the public lynching of a stranger and then turning your eyes away at the last second.

According to an NSA official, more than 90% of 50(ish) terrorist disruptions since 9/11 came from surveillance information legally acquired under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) [9]. However, the government’s evidence of such disruptions largely disclose the end  to sums of money changing hands rather than walking in on human beings actually drafting concrete plans to bomb, fire upon, or destroy domestic targets. Only two plots have been described in any detail as having been prevented by FISA investigations—one targeted at the New York subway and the other against a Danish newspaper in Chicago. The supposed planned attacks on the New York stock exchange seem to have been debunked or at least theoretical, with no charges being filed in regard to that plot [11].

In the name of those 50(ish) “terrorist disruptions” over the course of the last 12 years (that’s less than 4 disruptions–of any magnitude ranging from monetary donations to supposed possible violent plots on domestic soil–per year), the United States has used the same NSA surveillance technology currently causing American outrage, in addition to large incentive sums ranging from $3,000 – $25,000, to find and kill or detain thousands of foreign born people.

In the “War on Terror,” Human Rights Watch estimated that 100 or more “ghost prisoners” are being held incognito abroad, unnamed, uncharged, and unclaimed by the responsibility of anyone’s oversight who has their interests in mind. In addition, an unknown number of secret detention facilities within the warzones exist, holding high-level prisoners to be interrogated [18]. In violation of the international human rights outlined in the Geneva Convention of 1949, the Bush Administration humiliated, degraded, tortured, and coercively interrogated hundreds of detainees held at both Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and other “undisclosed” military sites throughout the world.

From 2002 – 2004, detainees held at the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib have reported being sexually assaulted, forced to undress in front of females and guards, forced to touch themselves, being urinated on, being piled atop one another in various positions, and humiliated in all manner of unimaginable ways.  Some of their statements, have been published by the Washington Post. In addition to humiliating treatment by low-level guards, the policy of the U.S. government was to interrogate prisoners by inhumane means, such as painful stress positions, depriving them of sleep and light, exposing them to extreme heat, cold, noise, and light, hooding, and depriving them of clothes. U.S. personnel were approved to torture detainees by submerging them under water until they believed they would drown. All reports of prisoner abuse or prisoner deaths went unpunished and unheard in a judicial setting [16].

779 people have been detained at Guantanamo Bay alone. The commanding general, who served both in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, issued orders to physically, mentally, and emotionally degrade detainees to “prepare them” for interrogation including the use of military guard dogs. After years of imprisonment, 86 of 166 currently in Guantanamo are approved for release but have remained in cells for months after approval [15]. A secret camp within Guantanamo Bay, known as Camp 7, has never been visited by any journalists or non-military personnel. It is unknown how many men are detained there, for how long, under what charges, and how they are being treated.

According to intelligence gathered on al Qaeda recruits, the average age of all would-be terrorist is 23-years. That’s three years younger than I am today, and the age I was one year after graduating college. Most suicide bombers were students; others were teachers, engineers, or scientists [18].  In the hunt for al Qaeda members and suicide bombers, not everyone is detained. Some are simply assassinated without any attempt at capture. At any moment, in the midst of doing the most inoccuous tasks, foreign citizens can be gunned down by American soldiers or unmanned drones with no chance at defending themselves, with the proof of their crimes hidden from them and all but a few military personnel. Among the horrors of war, these silent deaths may be the most disturbing. That at one moment a person is living and then they are dead, with no case made against them and anyone nearby labeled “collateral damage.”

As of 2011, the US had collected three million Iraqi fingerprint, iris, and retinal scans that were deposited in a biometric database in West Virginia, accessible by satellite from any military checkpoint in the world. Electronic and satellite surveillance in the Greater Middle East was synchronized to search for possible al-Qaeda operatives for assassination by predator drones or hunter-killer raids [1]. In unmanned drone strikes that supposedly protect the lives of American pilots but are less accurate than polited planes, there is no count of the deaths of militants or civilians. Human Rights organizations have estimated that in 2011 anywhere from 72-155 civilians were killed in drone strikes in Pakistan alone [23].

While many will justify the human rights violations against detained individuals as the unfortunate necessities of war, and the reduction of detainees’ humanity by referring to them as “combatants,” there is no justice in the world when it is denied to a few. Though the crimes of al Qaeda are great and times of war are confusing, we cannot discount human experience simply because it is convenient for us. Combatants are human beings. Their beliefs and actions are informed by their experience, just like ours. To dehumanize them is to create a black hole of otherness—where some people are deserving of torture and death because of their violent actions and others are not.

The torture and indefinite detention of Iraqi detainees is particularly ironic (or hypocritical) in light of the justifications used to explain our presence in Iraq in the first place. Having occupied Iraq despite its complete disconnect from the events of 9/11 in search of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that were never found [14], resulting in the deaths of over 100,000 civilians and the upheaval of Iraqi life, the Bush Administration explained the conflict as a fight for democracy in the region and the overthrow of the tyrannical Saddam Hussein. Included among the crimes committed by Hussein in his attempt to secure his power are: international war crimes, indefinite detention, detention without trial, and torture.

Even more ironic, before the United States invaded and occupied Iraq, al Qaeda had no presence there. It was only after the destabilization caused by government overthrow and the political confusion to follow that al Qaeda moved in with the hope of fighting the U.S. (essentially bringing Americans to where they could be killed), and other enemies previously silenced by Saddam Hussein’s regime [15]. The spread of al Qaeda into Iraq and the intentional drawing of suicide bombers into that region at the bequest of al Qaeda leadership was a direct result of the United States’ occupation.

Insurgents–or, as I like to call them–human beings who actually live there, are also paying the price for our war. In the 20th century, Iraq and Afghanistan were carved out of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France, with no regard for how the people there actually lived, or how they would use their resources. As a result, each country contains 3-4 major ethnic groups forced into a nation state. After gaining independence, each country saw coup after coup, government turn over and resistance movements making attempts to gain power. For decades before 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan were ruled by separate tyrannical regimes that violently suppressed their opposition with genocide, mass public and secret executions, and militarized police states. Neither government properly addressed the needs of the people in regard to agriculture, resource division, job creation, or even sanitation. When the US government overthrew those regimes, it was with no attempt to understand the needs or desires of the people whose political, social, or economic needs and desires had long been suppressed.

Many of the men and women we fight against in Afghanistan today are insurgents. They are small militias belonging to ethnically diverse groups who want to claim power or representation in their government, before yet another militarized regime (the US) supplants those representatives it thinks best suited to our interests. Yet, we blame them. We call them combatants to dehumanize them so that our idea of democracy will be swallowed a little better. Their tactics are different because, unlike us, they do not have a trillion dollar budget or the newest technologies. They fight the largest military in the world as well as their own governments. Most of them will die without ever achieving political representation or social gain.

If the fate of foreign combatants and civilians does not compel you to fear the war on terror, I will turn your attention to the American victims. There have been thousands of American and coalition casualties in combat since 2001Over 6,000 American soldiers have committed suicide since the outset of the war on terror–over twice the death toll of 9/11 in suicides alone. VA hospitals in the United States have reported a massive overflow of thousands of American soldiers returning from war with injuries, illnesses, and mental ailments caused by their experiences abroad. Over 100,000 veterans have sought out the VA for treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with at least twice that going untreated and undiagnosed.  Even with 2.4 million American soldiers serving in the over 4,000 days of war, a shortage of American troops has caused some tens of thousands of soldiers to return for several consecutive tours of duty–some up to six times in a row. The inhumane treatment of our own men, the destruction of their mental and physical health in the name of American control of political outcomes in the Middle East is a humanitarian crises in and of itself.

Surveillance in the United States is Not a Modern Art

Centralizing government files would eliminate perhaps the best safeguard of personal privacy—bureaucracy. Compiling all that is recorded about an individual is now often a difficult and, consequently, a discouraging task. If the National Data Center were established, the mere push of a button would end all that –Anthony Prisendorf, New York Post, 1966 [8].

The United States has made use of surveillance for political and military advantage since the early 1900’s, using whatever technology was readily available—and often developing new technology for that specific purpose. According to History professor and author Dr. Alfred McCoy, during the US occupation of the Philippines, American information innovations such as rapid telegraphy, photographic files, alpha-numeric coding, and Gamewell police communications, the U.S. government created a colonial surveillance state that ruled thanks to the control of information—using collected data to damn enemies and suppress scandals about allies [1].  Among their use of surveillance, the American military killed Filipino men, women, and children indiscriminately, took prisoners and captives from among the insurgents and used torture–including waterboarding–to gain intelligence. The American occupation in the Philippines resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 civilians [20].

Use of surveillance techniques in the Philippines led to the creation of the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Division (MID) and the Cipher Bureau or “Black Chamber” in 1914–the first official intelligence services. The MID amassed a million pages of surveillance reports on German-American civilians living within the United States. During World War I, the MID and FBI used these surveillance techniques to violently repress the American left. Under the auspice of international threat and influence of the Bolsheviks, US intelligence gatherers sought out opposition citizens and leadership within the United States to suppress prominent union strikes and civil rights movements in what is referred to as the “Red Scare.” As is familiar today, domestic bombings targeted at political ideologies were used to justify mass intelligence gathering to identify communists and anarchists—supposedly to prevent further violence that would reflect the revolutions abroad. Under laws like the Sedition Act, liberals, communists, socialists, anarchists, and foreigners were rounded up, jailed, blacklisted or deported [1] [2] [3] [20].

Again, in 1945 the United States launched a large-scale spy operation gathering telegraphic data going in and out of the country, which didn’t end until it faced the objections of lawmakers in 1975 [6].

From 1960 – 1974, again the United States used the most modern surveillance technology to target anti-war activists who spoke out about the violence, oppression and terror waged during the Vietnam war. Though no true threat to civilian lives existed, the government deployed COINTELPRO—a surveillance and interference operation—to investigate 300,000 activists and anonymously attempt to break them apart, disrupt their meetings, ostracize people from their professions outside of activism, and provoke rival groups to the point of violence. As a result, President Jimmy Carter signed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to create a special court to approve all wiretaps. That very legislation allowed for the intrusion of domestic privacy after 9/11, providing a covert judiciary that eliminated all transparency to the use of surveillance technology while still making it legal and the rights of American citizens supposedly secure [1].

On February 24, 1972 in United States v. United States District Court, the Supreme Court ruled that a warrant was required for domestic spying—even in the event of a domestic terrorist threat. Justice Lewis Powell wrote in the majority opinion, “The price of lawful public dissent must not be a dread of subjection to an unchecked surveillance power. Nor must the fear of unauthorized official eavesdropping deter vigorous citizen dissent and discussion of Government action in private conversation. For private dissent, no less than open public discourse, is essential to our free society.” [7]. While this decision protected the American citizens of the 70’s from warrantless surveillance, it did nothing to protect foreigners, or “any other clear and present danger to the structure of the Government” who was not living domestically.

However, in 1979 in Smith v. Maryland, the Supreme Court decided that the fourth amendment did not apply to surveillance of data tied to telephone calls. According to the justices, civilians do not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” in the numbers they dial on their phones because they are aware that the telephone company keeps records [10]. Today, this loophole allows the collection of certain data from telephone companies without warrants, and set a precedent for modern surveillance law.

The Use of Surveillance Against Americans in the War on Terror

NSA surveillance on American citizens is no joke. According to industry experts, the U.S. can track individual’s locations by obtaining data from cellphone towers that track the exact location of a cellphone—down to the specific floor of a building [5]. While the atrocities being committed against foreign citizens far outweighs the threat to American privacy, the advancement of NSA surveillance on American information with the approval of all three branches of government is certainly something to be concerned about. In light of the history illustrated above, Americans have a lot to fear if the government cannot be compelled to reign in their urgency to control political outcomes.

In 2002, the Bush administration set in motion Operation TIPS (Terrorist Information and Prevention System), that would have acquired millions of volunteers working as civilian foot-soldiers to spy on their neighbors right here in the United States. Though that program was ultimately shut down due to public outrage, it would have essentially turned civilians against one another, enacting them with the power to spy-on and report against their neighbors, granting powers of warrantless searches of their property without anyone knowing. Much like the infamous Red Scare, Bush had hoped that his media-driven campaign for patriotism would have compelled Americans to oust extremist Muslim sympathizers. The major problem being that most Americans believe that all Muslims are extremists, and could hardly identify a Muslim if they wanted to—and trust me they do.

Despite known public outrage based on their attempts made with O-TIPS, President Bush ordered the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor civilians’ private communications through access to telephone companies (sound familiar?). According to the Associated Press, the Bush Administration initiated the Terrorist Surveillance Program and used Microsoft Corp.—then the most popular software company and email provider—to collect email archives, account information, and any other data that could be compiled by their engineers and handed over to the government. No discretion was used in these transactions to distinguish between American citizens’ data and that of foreigners. Furthermore, the NSA was secretly authorized to tap the same fiber-optic cables they’d been monitoring since the 1970’s to spy on Americans’ phone calls, video chats, websites, bank transactions and more [4]. The administration claimed that the use of this technology and monitoring was helping to stop post-9/11 terrorist attacks and that discretion was used in regard to accessing data related to Americans—the limits were and are still classified. According to the government, the data collected is not immediately destroyed in case it might have future relevance—how long the data will be kept is also classified. According to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), data is only kept on American citizens for five years if it has not become relevant [9]. No answers have been given as to what counts as relevance, nor whether or not changes in our enemies justifies keeping the information.

In 2007 Bush endorsed a new law, the Protect America Act, which allowed wiretapping to continue through the NSA, so long as they explained their techniques and targets within a secret court—FISC. The Protect America Act made warrantless wire-tapping legal on both foreigners and American citizens. From that legislation, the now infamous NSA program and possibly one of the most innocuous parts of surveillance—Prism—was born. Though many of the companies compelled to give information to the United States—google, facebook, yahoo—have insisted that they do not provide unfettered access to user data, we really have no idea what the government actually sees and does. Securities expert and author Bruce Schneier has said openly that we cannot trust what the government, nor corporations, are telling us—“it’s spycraft, after all” [4].

According to the rules of the FISC, the NSA stores millions of records for phone data (again, data—not content) for records only associated with U.S. based phone numbers if they were called from an overseas phone identified with a specific foreign terrorist [9]. Despite the fact that the content of the calls or emails are not recorded, the frequency of calls or length of calls can be quite intimate—who do you call most often? How often do you call your gynecologist? Have you recently called any politically or religiously affiliated groups? Journalists in particular have much to fear from the monitoring of the length, location, and frequency of their calls. If a journalist is doing an investigative piece in regard to terrorism, they might be the first to contact suspicious people. Even more frightening, if journalists are investigating surveillance itself, the NSA will know.

Prism is an information narrowing program, used to focus the stream of data coming in from company-provided and fiber-optic cable data. Executed in secrecy, yearly meetings are held between the attorney general and the director of national intelligence to conspire about intelligence gathering overseas. A federal judge, also in secret, must approve that plan. Through that plan, specific directives aimed at targets or groups of targets are handed to internet companies for the collection of data. Prism allows the NSA access to a target’s entire email inbox—including any communications with American citizens [4].

More disturbing than the use of Prism, which one might suggest “accidentally” collects American data, is the continued warrantless monitoring of data in fiber-optic cables. One CEO of a technology corporation said that this kind of monitoring gives the US access to anything—aside from face-to-face contact—that he can think of.

The information being gathered is not as intimate as most Americans seem to imagine. No one is sitting behind a desk watching your uploaded home videos, or listening to your late-night chat with your best friend. Instead, these methods employed by the NSA are using the data associated with your communications—not the communications themselves—to monitor people around the world. According to the NYTimes, “When separate streams of data are integrated into large databases — matching, for example, time and location data from cellphones with credit card purchases or E-ZPass use — intelligence analysts are given a mosaic of a person’s life that would never be available from simply listening to their conversations. Just four data points about the location and time of a mobile phone call, a study published in Nature found, make it possible to identify the caller 95 percent of the time.”

Meanwhile, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, unmanned Predator Drones and piloted Rivet Joint aircraft were combined to capture full-motion video and infrared images around the clock, recording a “pattern of life,” that establishes—quite intimately—who comes, who goes, how often, and how regularly. The larger piloted aircraft are capable of tracking vehicles travelling across an entire desert region [18]. Those being spied on need not even be using technology of any kind to be traced, and no distance of foot or automotive travel is safe enough to be out of sight.

Since taking office in 2009, after scandals revealing that the NSA was abusing access to American information, Obama has endorsed the use of wiretapping.  As Obama continues to discuss decreasing the costs of defense while maintaining political power, 11,000 NSA employees are building a $1.6 billion data center in Utah that will coordinate surveillance data from predator drones, reapers, U-2 spy planes, Global Hawks, X-37B space drones, Google Earth, Space Surveillance Telescopes, and orbiting satellites. Protecting it, the Pentagon is building a security force of pilotless X-37B space drones that can strike rival satellite networks with missiles. Within the next decade, Dr. Alfred McCoy says the US will be able to “…advance more omnipresent digital surveillance networks that will envelope the earth in an electronic grid capable of blinding entire armies on the battlefield, atomizing a single suspected terrorist, or monitoring millions of private lives at home and abroad” [1].

Of solutions, I have none. We are mired in a decade long war stretching over three continents. I have only the paraphrased cautionary words of Robert Merton: we will always be met with unintended consequences if the desire for an outcome is so great that there is willful ignorance of its effects, and our decision making in disregard for the effects is informed by a moral or ideological imperative. The United States has been in a persistent state of war — or in search of one — throughout its history. In our hunt for empire, our internal struggles, our attempts to control the political outcomes of Europe and now the Middle East, we have chosen to neglect the basic human rights of our own citizens, soldiers, and enemies in a hunt for democratic, capitalist power. Capitalism is a dangerous ideology to chase and democracy an impossible one to enforce. Democracy can only be found in the willful struggle toward it, by the people within a nation–it cannot be thrust upon a culture from outside. History shows us that no matter how carefully we handpick officials we place into the governments of other countries, the people want to choose those who represent them and always rebel–that is democracy. If the people are Muslim and want an Islamic government, they should have it. If they want secular rule, they should have that too. We should not, and ultimately cannot, choose for them.

Though we are trapped in this war now, I would caution the United States government to find an escape as soon as possible. A witch hunt for enemies will always create them while destroying the innocent.

Updated September 7, 2013: The comments below may be in response to an earlier version of this piece.


  1. McCoy, Alfred W. “The Making of the U.S. Surveillance State, 1898-2020 | History News Network.” History News Network. TomDispatch, 13 July 2013. Web. 30 July 2013. <http://hnn.us/articles/making-us-surveillance-state-1898-2020&gt;.
  2. Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-present. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Print.
  3. The Palmer Raids.” FBI. FBI, 28 Dec. 2007. Web. 30 July 2013.
  4. Braun, Steven. “SECRET TO PRISM PROGRAM: EVEN BIGGER DATA SEIZURE.”Associated Press. N.p., 15 June 2013. Web. 30 July 2013.
  5. Risen, James. “How the U.S. Uses Technology to Mine More Data More Quickly.” The New York Times. N.p., 08 June 2013. Web. 30 July 2013.
  6. Bruce, Schneier. “Project Shamrock.” Schneier on Security. N.p., 29 Dec. 2005. Web. 30 July 2013
  7. “United States v. United States District Court.” United States v. United States District Court. N.p., 24 Feb. 1972. Web. 30 July 2013.
  8. Heuval, Katrina. “This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The United States of Surveillance, Through the Years | The Nation.” The Nation. N.p., 15 June 2013. Web. 30 July 2013.
  9. Pincus, Walter. “NSA Should Be Debated on the Facts.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 29 July 2013. Web. 30 July 2013.
  10. Smith V. Maryland. 442 U.S. 735 (1979).
  11. Savage, Charlie. “N.S.A. Chief Says Surveillance Has Stopped Dozens of Plots.” The New York Times. N.p., 18 June 2013. Web. 30 July 2013.
  12. Harwood, Matthew. “James Comey’s Indefensible Defense of Indefinite Detention.” American Civil Liberties Union. 19 June 2013. Web 30 July 2013.
  13. De Zayas, Alfred. “Human Rights and indefinite detention.” International Review of the Red Cross. Vol 87 No 857. March 2005.
  14. Delivered into Enemy Hands: US-Led Abuse and Rendition of Opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya.” Human Rights Watch. September 2012.
  15. Allawi, Ali A. “The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the war, Losing the Peace.” Yale University Press. 2007.
  16. Fact Sheet: Gitmo By the Numbers.” Human Rights First. April 2013.
  17. The Road to Abu Ghraib.” Human Rights Watch. June 2004.
  18. Schmitt, Eric and Thom Shanker. “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda.” Henry Holt & Co. 2011.
  19. Jones, Seth G. “In the Graveyard of Empires: Americas War in Afghanistan.” W. W. Norton & Company. 2010. Print.
  20. Kuznick, Peter and Oliver Stone. “The Untold History of the United States.” Secret History, LLC. 2012. Print.
  21. Zinn, Howard. “A People’s History of the United States.” HarperCollins Publishers. NY, NY. 2005.
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Sources not cited within:

Civil Unrest in Syria: a cautionary conclusion

Photo by the People’s Record of American CIA agents training and spying for Syrian rebels.

According to the United Nations, the current conflict in Syria has claimed the lives of over 92,000 human beings in the last two years–7,000 of them children under the age of 15. The conflict dating back to March 2011’s non-violent protests, is wrought with the complexities not only of internal struggle against Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian regime, but is also intricately tied with the fate of Palestine, a balance of power among other nations in the region, and international forces–mostly from the west–attempting to assert their control over the future political outcomes across the middle east. Literally hundreds of local resistance movements complicate the conflict, unable to form a united front against Syria’s authoritarian regime due to religious, political, ethnic, and class divides heavily entwined in Syria’s history. The rebel groups dispersed across Syria have recently resorted to killing one another over turf conflicts, further dismantling the battle lines.

This conflict is worthy of news coverage in its own right, with death tolls and the creation of refugees growing every day. Recent reports have called the regime’s military movements through the city of Homs “ethnic cleansings.” Both the Sunnis who live there flee in fear of al-Asad’s forces, and the Alawites along the Western coast of Syria fear that if the rebellion is successful, they will need the area as a safe haven due to their leaders’ roots. Divisions between the historically wealthy Sunni elite and the historically peasant Alawites, who gained power with the modern four-decade-long dictatorship, are just two of the ethnic, class, and sectarian lines creating fear of identity and violent retaliation.

Baroness Amos, the UN aid chief, said 6.8 million Syrians need urgent humanitarian assistance, including more than 4.2 million internally displaced–three million of these human beings in desperate need of assistance are children. The latest assessment by the World Food Programme was that four million people can no longer meet their basic food needs [1]. The instability of the country has forced the largely agricultural state into a food crisis–with millions fleeing their homes to escape violence, no food is being produced, no homes are available to keep or prepare food, and the rate of hunger escalates with every day of continued violence. The crisis is further compounded by the stalemate of imports, and the fear for aid workers in regions of heavy conflict.

For Americans, the conflict is worthy of note because our government spends much of its international aid budget on aid to Syrian rebel forces that would progress our interests, and because there are current talks of military intervention on the ground.

The modern conflict in Syria cannot be separated from its complex history as a French colony–though some might consider that a forgone era–Syria did not gain independence from the French until 1946. Any Syrian nationals older than 60-years-of-age today, lived under imperial rule and remember the fight for independence and the entirety of the current regime dating over four decades.

According to historian William Cleveland, “…the French created conditions that would prolong their rule. They did so by adopting a policy of divide and rule that emphasized and encouraged the existing religious, ethnic, and regional differences within Syria.” The French separated two minority groups–the Alawites and the Druze–from Syrian political life, framing urban Sunni Muslims as the controlling elite and intermediaries between the French and native Syrian population. After independence, minority religious groups were only integrated into politics through participation in the military, due to the class divide between rural Syrians and educated Urban elites [2]. This segregation of interests is clear in today’s conflict–with hundreds of rebel groups divided, unable to unite for a common cause and sectarian violence leading al-Asad’s assault on cities like Homs.

Starting in 1949, a series of coup d’états by the peasant and Alawaite dominated military took power from the European educated elites–most of whom were urban Sunni Mulims. By the late 1960’s, controlling power fell into the hands of the Ba’th Party, a nationalist socialist platform. Over the course of those two tumultuous decades, the region joined in the United Arab Republic and then broke away, went to war with Israel, and conflicted on party, religious, and ethnic lines. In 1970 the first leader of the current regime, Hafiz al-Asad, an Alawite military leader, secured his power. By that time, the region was set in a pro-Arab, anti-Israel conflict that heavily informs the conflict today.

The father of Syria’s current dictator used the military to suppress his opposition and maintain his power for three decades–appointing relatives and trusted associates in key positions, though they had no qualifying experience in running a largely agricultural economy, no education in political dealings, and backgrounds invested in military knowledge. Conflict with Israel over Palestine was paramount to Hafiz al-Asad, causing him to increase his military forces from 50,000 to 400,000 in just 13 years–its weaponry at the time was supplied by the Soviet Union. Al-Asad spent 20% of the country’s wealth on military efforts at the expense of social programs and domestic growth in order to reclaim his rights to Jordan and Lebanon (which he failed to do) and to restore Palestine (which he also failed to do).

Despite previous popular support due to his social programs for rural farmers, in the mid-1980’s, Hafiz al-Asad faced conflict between two factions within Syria–from his brother in Damascus and rebels in Homs. Sensing civil unrest, he reasserted his power through repression, proving to the people that the regime maintained control almost solely through military power rather than popular consent [3]. That fear-mongering, and the consistent capture of political prisoners who opposed the regime, fed the anger and resentment of the first protests of 2011.

After Hafiz’s death in 2000, his son Bashar al-Asad took over the regime and immediately faced multiple conflicts and resistance. In 2002, shortly after the events of September 11th, the pro-Israel United States at war with Iraq placed Syria on their “axis of evil” anti-terror list. The Bush administration along with other Western powers insisted that Syria was militarily supporting Iraq. Despite Bashar al-Asad’s protests, the US insisted Syria was developing their own weapons of mass destruction. Several investigations over the next several years would take place in regard to nuclear and chemical weapons in Syria, leading to further sanctions by the US, the UN, and the EU–straining the Syrian economy.

In the wake of the Tunisian revolution and the launch of the Arab Spring, in March 2011 in Damascus and the southern city of Deraa, protesters demanded the release of political prisoners held by the Syrian regime. The regime’s first displays of violence related to the current conflict occurred when security forces shot a number of people dead in Deraa, triggering days of violent unrest. Over the course of the next few months, protests spread nationwide [4].

In the proceeding months, the US and EU furthered their sanctions on the Syrian regime, in attempts to stop weapons supplies that reinforce the power of the regime. These sanctions also apply pressure that might control their interests in the outcome of a democratic, non-Islamic Syria. Meanwhile, thousands of Syrians fled (and continue to flee today) to neighboring countries, including Turkey and Lebanon. In November of 2011, even the Arab League impressed sanctions on Syria to condemn its inability to create a peace plan. At the outset of 2012, the UN reported that 7,500 Syrians had been killed in the conflict. That number would has increased more than ten fold in just 18 months.

FSA soldier. Photo by the Washington Post.

Throughout the discourse of the American media, the Supreme Military Command (SMC) or Free Syrian Army (FSA) have been held up as the rebel super-power aimed to defeat the regime, though it is nothing more than a superficial coalition of rebel groups backed by western nations, including the United States and the UK. While the Western media continues to describe the conflict as largely belonging to the FSA and the regime, ignoring the hundreds of other militarized groups, the truth is that on the ground in Syria, no real coalitions of rebels exist on pro-West terms. The FSA have little likelihood of rallying support of other rebel groups, despite having the advantage of Western wealth and political clout at their backs. Western nations have sent humanitarian aid to the FSA and expressed plans to send arms support, despite questions about its intervention and introduction of weapons into a complicated conflict with no distinct lines between combatants.

Efforts by the international community to discern a simple, concise message by the rebels would be impossible. Their fight is theirs, and is deeply ingrained in local segregation. The one thing that is clear is the divide between the current regime and the majority of the people. Each rebellion wants their voice heard and represented, and wants to escape political and sectarian discrimination that has perpetuated decades of fear of arrest.

Most of the responsibility for the deaths, injuries, and citizens fleeing to neighboring nations has been afforded to the regime, which has embraced the authoritarian history of its passed leadership in desperate, violent means of maintaining power in spite of the suffering of its people, and with little regard to their interests. According to Russian officials, Bashar al-Asad and his regime have used Sarin gas–a chemical weapon–against rebels. If we need any other reason to oppose Bashar al-Asad, use of chemical weapons is an international war crime according to Rule 74 of the Geneva Convention.

So, what is the solution?

Human Rights organizations are calling for a complete ceasefire by both the Syrian regime and the rebel armies–but history repeats itself and this seems a distinctly unlikely outcome, especially considering the hundreds of divisive lines between combatants.

In 2012, Kofi Anon developed a six-point plan alongside the United Nations to end the conflict, but, ironically, because the conflict escalated so violently–the plan was suspended within a few months of its creation. Anon’s plan included intentions to end the Syrian regime’s progress toward civilian areas as well as a daily two-hour humanitarian pause across all conflict lines.

Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s representative to the United Nations, claims that lack of funds is the chief explanation for lack of humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians as well as the limits set by international sanctions, though violent conflict by the regime persists and seems the most likely source of the Syrian peoples’ suffering. Limitations on further aid to the country are largely due to inaccessibility to war-torn areas, where aid is needed most.

According to United States Army General Martin Dempsey, the US, at this point heavily involved in anti-regime pro-FSA politics, has five options in ending this conflict: training and advising the opposition, conducting limited stand-off strikes, establishing a no-fly zone, establishing buffer zones and controlling chemical arms with the use of lethal force. All of these options limit US efforts to rebels who offer us future advantage, and leave no room for protecting the interests of religious, ethnic, or class minorities separate from the FSA.

Hamar Dabashi, professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia says that the government must begin to rule rather than militarize, in order for the people’s voices to be heard:

“As a potent political category, “the people” has never been a more pertinent force, and people’s public self-consciousness never a more critical factor in outlasting all these feeble treacheries. In the midst of all the carnage remain the Syrian people themselves, those peaceful protestors who are the silent majority that might now be quiet in the midst of the violence, but will be heard again (in the form of labour unions, women’s rights organisations, student assembles, and any other form of voluntary association) once these brutish conquerors come down off their horses and Humvees to rule.”

In response to all of these views, I would express a concern to my fellow Americans and our Western allies not to believe the hype of the Western media in regard to Syria, and use caution in expressing sole support for those rebels that the West deems fit. As is clear in Syria’s history, the weight of influence by Western states, and even Arab neighbors, is a fleeting advantage in conflict. Though the West may have arms and money and aid, that aid is not given freely to all civilians for the sake of aid itself–but with strings that will tie future leadership to Western needs that will inevitably create further fissures between the hundreds of interests of the Syrian people.

Only the defeat or surrender of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and a peaceful coalition of the rebel parties can create a truly peaceful Syrian state, guided by the wants and needs of the Syrian people. Western interests should not be the foundation of a new Syrian political system–that way leads only toward further divides.

Continue reading “Civil Unrest in Syria: a cautionary conclusion”