When a colleague sent me a Choice
Feminist Campus post, Black
HERstory Month, offering
ways to observe and honor Black History Month from a feminist perspective,
I was intrigued. I have long been conflicted about Black History
Month because of its superficial presentation — and I am not sure celebrating
Black HERstory Month is the answer I seek.
If you Google "do we still
need Black History Month?" a ton of articles and posts pop up — either
defending or critiquing what has become a must-do month long celebration
for many schools, organizations and companies. Last year, the
actor Morgan Freeman added fuel to the already smoldering fire when
he called the idea of Black History Month "ridiculous" during an
appearance on 60 Minutes. Many share Freeman’s views that Black
history should be a part of history everyday, while others argue that
while a month recognizing black history may have potential, Black History
Month as it exists in the U.S. has become too commercial to have any
real social value.
Renee of Womanist Musings has a guest post up on Feministe titled Black History Month in which she explains why she has deliberately
not done a "celebration post" for Black History Month.
"For a brief 28 days of the
365 that make up a year, people will briefly acknowledge the contributions
of blacks and then return to privileging whiteness in every single social
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I tend to agree with Renee and
have been exasperated by the number of people who want to specifically
celebrate this year’s Black History Month because we just elected
this nation’s first president of African descent. It feels forced,
obligatory and downright inappropriate when so many communities of color
are struggling to survive the same sea of societal toxic waste resulting
from the lack of privilege that they faced last year.
I can’t help but think that
Black Herstory Month is destined to that same fate as Black History
Month, even though I really like the idea of studying and honoring the
contributions women of color have made throughout history.
When I was a young child, Black
History Month was celebrated through traditional examinations of slavery,
the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle for equal education.
The unique contributions women of color have made and are making were
often overlooked, and I was left feeling invisible during a month that
was supposed to increase my visibility. That lack of visibility
continues — and was particularly felt during last year’s election
coverage when women voters and black voters were spoken of as if black
women voters simply don’t exist.
So, I wasn’t shocked by the
continued failure to mention Shirley Chisholm’s name during the historic
2008 presidential campaign even though her presidential candidacy in
1972 foreshadowed many of the issues and controversies last year’s
race resurrected. Chisholm became the first black woman elected
to Congress in 1968, and ran for president in 1972. An examination
of Chisholm requires an examination of why her candidacy was not viewed
as viable and why history has failed to acknowledge her run and it is
clear that such an examination wouldn’t fit into the "we’re gonna
make history" election year narrative of 2008. If Black History
Month functioned properly, Shirley Chisholm’s historic 1972 run would
have been top of mind for political pundits searching for examples of
the challenges candidates of color face when they run for statewide
or national office. If we are ever in a position to assess the
impact of Black Herstory Month, name recognition among the general public
and within communities of color for Shirley Chisholm, Angela Davis and
Cynthia McKinney as African Americans who have run for President of
the United States must be a measure.
And I’m not unmoved by the
proposal to increase our historical awareness of women of color.
In fact there may still be something to this Black Herstory Month idea
if we use it right. The Choices Feminist Campus post provides some good
suggestions for ways to explore and celebrate herstories in a meaningful
and educational way.
We can host regular screenings
of films or documentaries about, directed and written by and starring
people of African descent. A favorite film of mine is Chisholm
’72: Unbought and Unbossed,
which explores Chisholm’s 1972 run for president. The documentary
is a fascinating look at herstory too often overlooked when we explore
women in politics. Screening and discussing this documentary provides
an opportunity to learn more about Chisholm’s historic run for office
and explore the issues raised during it that are still relevant today.
Or perhaps we would prefer to
host a ceremony or gathering to pay homage for past sheroes and heroes
of African descent who have contributed greatly to our world.
I was able to participate in such an event a few years ago. Participants
were asked to research women in our families who were part of the Civil
Rights movement. We then honored those women through personal
accounts, performances and song. Preparing for the event gave
me the opportunity to collect personal histories from my relatives.
I was able to build a herstory of my Grandmother and get to know her
through the context of the struggle for social justice. I discovered
that my Grandmother was active in the anti-Lynching movement, participated
in boycotts and marches and fought for better access for women to health
care more than 50 year ago. Honoring my Grandmother provided an
opportunity to explore not just what she was able to accomplish but
also what she was prevented from accomplishing.
The ideas presented for Black
Herstory Month are all doable as regular projects throughout the year
and they all provide opportunities to celebrate as well as identify
inequalities in need of correction. The problem is that many schools
and institutions see Black History Month as just another diversity "to-do"
that, once completed, lets them off the hook for the rest of the year.
So they place a few ads on Black radio stations and sponsor a couple
of events then call it a day. The challenge is figuring out how
we can sell through the benefits of a comprehensive program to those
same schools and institutions when so many of them enjoy the ease and
sense of accomplishment that comes with single serve diversity initiatives
In many ways it falls on the
students and employees of such institutions to push and challenge for
more meaningful interactions and events that truly reflect Black History;
for the inclusion of Black history as a part of American history and
women’s history and LGBT history and you get the picture. And
there can not be enough emphasis put on the word "meaningful," because
celebrating the good is as easy as it is tempting but exploring and
addressing the injustices that remain unaddressed is what is required
to achieve meaningful.
As Rene of Womanist Musings points
out at the conclusion of her Feministe
guest post, engaging
in dialogue and listening to each other is part of the solution.
Without that dialogue Black Herstory Month is doomed to fall short of
being an instrument of social justice and far more likely to evolve
into just another vacant minority marketing campaign scheduled in the
month of February.
Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.
Immigration has been one of the country’s most contentious political topics and, not surprisingly, is now a primary focus of this election. But no matter how you feel about the subject, this is a nation of immigrants in search of “el sueño Americano,” as Karla Ortiz reminded us on the first night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Ortiz, the 11-year-old daughter of two undocumented parents, appeared in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad earlier this year expressing fear that her parents would be deported. Standing next to her mother on the DNC stage, the young girl told the crowd that she is an American who wants to become a lawyer to help families like hers.
It was a powerful way to kick-start the week, suggesting to viewers Democrats were taking a radically different approach to immigration than the Republican National Convention (RNC). While the RNC made undocumented immigrants the scapegoats for a variety of social ills, from U.S. unemployment to terrorism, the DNC chose to highlight the contributions of immigrants: the U.S. citizen daughter of undocumented parents, the undocumented college graduate, the children of immigrants who went into politics. Yet, even the stories shared at the DNC were too tidy and palatable, focusing on “acceptable” immigrant narratives. There were no mixed-status families discussing their deported parents, for example.
As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other. By the end of two weeks, viewers may not have known whether to blame immigrants for taking their jobs or to befriend their hardworking immigrant neighbors. For the undocumented immigrants watching the conventions, the message, however, was clear: Both parties have a lot of work to do when it comes to humanizing their communities.
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So, it should come as no surprise that the first night of the RNC, which had the theme of “Make America Safe Again,” preyed on American fears of the “other.” In this case: undocumented immigrants who, as Julianne Hing wrote for the Nation, “aren’t just drug dealers and rapists anymore—now they’re murderers, too.”
Night one of the RNC featured not one but three speakers whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. “They’re just three brave representatives of many thousands who have suffered so gravely,” Trump said at the convention. “Of all my travels in this country, nothing has affected me more, nothing even close I have to tell you, than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our borders, which we can solve. We have to solve it.”
Billed as “immigration reform advocates,” grieving parents like Mary Ann Mendoza called her son’s killer, who had resided in the United States for 20 years before the drunk driving accident that ended her police officer son’s life, an “illegal immigrant” who “had no business being in this country.”
It seemed exploitative and felt all too common. Drunk driving deaths are tragically common and have nothing to do with immigration, but it is easier to demonize undocumented immigrants than it is to address the nation’s broken immigration system and the conditions that are separating people from their countries of origin—conditions to which the United States has contributed. Trump has spent months intentionally and disingenuously pushing narratives that undocumented immigrants are hurting and exploiting the United States, rather than attempting to get to the root of these issues. This was hammered home by Mendoza, who finished her speech saying that we have a system that cares more about “illegals” than Americans, and that a vote for Hillary “puts all of our children’s lives at risk.”
There was also Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious racist whose department made a practice of racially profiling Latinos and was recently found to be in civil contempt of court for “repeatedly and knowingly” disobeying orders to cease policing tactics against Latinos, NPR reported.
Like Mendoza, Arpaio told the RNC crowd that the immigration system “puts the needs of other nations ahead of ours” and that “we are more concerned with the rights of ‘illegal aliens’ and criminals than we are with protecting our own country.” The sheriff asserted that he was at the RNC because he was distinctly qualified to discuss the “dangers of illegal immigration,” as someone who has lived on both sides of the border.
“We have terrorists coming in over our border, infiltrating our communities, and causing massive destruction and mayhem,” Arpaio said. “We have criminals penetrating our weak border security systems and committing serious crimes.”
When accepting the nomination, Trump highlighted the story of Sarah Root of Nebraska, a 21-year-old who was killed in a drunk-driving accident by a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant.
“To this administration, [the Root family’s] amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting,” Trump said. “One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”
It should be noted that the information related to immigration that Trump provided in his RNC speech, which included the assertion that the federal government enables crime by not deporting more undocumented immigrants (despite deporting more undocumented immigrants than ever before in recent years), came from groups founded by John Tanton, a well-known nativist whom the Southern Poverty Law center referred to as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.”
“The Border Crossed Us”
From the get-go, it seemed the DNC set out to counter the dangerous, anti-immigrant rhetoric pushed at the RNC. Over and over again, Democrats like Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) hit back hard against Trump, citing him by name and quoting him directly.
“Donald Trump believes that Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists. But what about my parents, Donald?” Sánchez asked the crowd, standing next to her sister, Rep. Loretta Sánchez (D-CA). “They are the only parents in our nation’s 265-year history to send not one but two daughters to the United States Congress!”
Each speech from a Latino touched on immigration, glossing over the fact that immigration is not just a Latino issue. While the sentiments were positive—illustrating a community that is thriving, and providing a much-needed break from the RNC’s anti-immigrant rhetoric—at the core of every speech were messages of assimilation and respectability politics.
Even in gutsier speeches from people like actress Eva Longoria, there was the need to assert that her family is American and that her father is a veteran. The actress said, “My family never crossed a border. The border crossed us.”
Whether intentional or not, the DNC divided immigrants into those who are acceptable, respectable, and worthy of citizenship, and those—invisible at the convention—who are not. “Border crossers” who do not identify as American, who do not learn English, who do not aspire to go to college or become an entrepreneur because basic survival is overwhelming enough, what about them? Do they deserve to be in detention? Do their families deserve to be ripped apart by deportation?
At the convention, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), a champion of immigration reform, said something seemingly innocuous that snapped into focus the problem with the Democrats’ immigration narrative.
“In her heart, Hillary Clinton’s dream for America is one where immigrants are allowed to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, pay their taxes, and not feel fear that their families are going to be ripped apart,” Gutiérrez said.
The Democratic Party is participating in an all-too-convenient erasure of the progress undocumented people have made through sheer force of will. Immigration has become a leading topic not because there are more people crossing the border (there aren’t) or because nativistDonald Trump decided to run for president, but because a segment of the population has been denied basic rights and has been fighting tooth and nail to save themselves, their families, and their communities.
Immigrants have been coming out of the shadows and as a result, are largely responsible for the few forms of relief undocumented communities now have, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows certain undocumented immigrants who meet specific qualifications to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. And “getting right with the law” is a joke at this point. The problem isn’t that immigrants are failing to adhere to immigration laws; the problem is immigration laws that are notoriously complicated and convoluted, and the system, which is so backlogged with cases that a judge sometimes has just seven minutes to determine an immigrant’s fate.
Becoming a U.S. citizen is also really expensive. There is a cap on how many people can immigrate from any given country in a year, and as Janell Ross explained at the Washington Post:
There are some countries, including Mexico, from where a worker with no special skills or a relative in the United States can apply and wait 23 years, according to the U.S. government’s own data. That’s right: There are people receiving visas right now in Mexico to immigrate to the United States who applied in 1993.
But getting back to Gutierrez’s quote: Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes, though their ability to contribute to our economy should not be the one point on which Democrats hang their hats in order to attract voters. And actually, undocumented people pay a lot of taxes—some $11.6 billion in state and local taxes last year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy—while rarely benefiting from a majority of federal assistance programs since the administration of President Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996.
The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, enacted under former President Clinton, have had the combined effect of dramatically increasing the number of immigrants in detention and expandingmandatory or indefinite detention of noncitizens ordered to be removed to countries that will not accept them, as the American Civil Liberties Union notes on its site. Clinton also passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which economically devastated Mexican farmers, leading to their mass migration to the United States in search of work.
In 1990, then-Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 and specifically excluded undocumented women for the first 19 of the law’s 22 years, and even now is only helpful if the victim of intimate partner abuse is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident.
When writing about the Democratic Party, community organizer Rosa Clemente, the 2008 Green Party vice president candidate, said that she is afraid of Trump, “but not enough to be distracted from what we must do, which is to break the two-party system for good.”
This is an election like we’ve never seen before, and it would be disingenuous to imply that the party advocating for the demise of the undocumented population is on equal footing with the party advocating for the rights of certain immigrants whose narratives it finds acceptable. But this is a country where Republicans loudly—and with no consequence—espouse racist, xenophobic, and nativist beliefs while Democrats publicly voice support of migrants while quietly standing by policies that criminalize undocumented communities and lead to record numbers of deportations.
During two weeks of conventions, both sides declared theirs was the party that encapsulated what America was supposed to be, adhering to morals and values handed down from our forefathers. But ours is a country comprised of stolen land and built by slave labor where today, undocumented immigrants, the population most affected by unjust immigration laws and violent anti-immigrant rhetoric, don’t have the right to vote. It is becoming increasingly hard to tell if that is indeed “un-American” or deeply American.
Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.
On Thursday night, Hillary Clinton formally accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Her speech included many of the elements one expects from a nominee, but there were some standout moments—like when she mentioned disability rights, which she did repeatedly.
Clinton integrated disability into her discussion of her record, talking about her work to ensure that disabled children have the right to go to school and bringing up the health-care needs of disabled youth. Her commentary reinforced the fact that she has always cared about disability issues, particularly in the context of children’s rights.
But she did more than that. She referenced shortages of mental health beds. She explicitly called out disability rights as necessary to defend. And at one point, she did not mention disability, which in itself was radical. When she outlined her plans for gun reform and clearly stated that she wanted to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, she referenced people with criminal histories and terrorists, but not mentally ill people, who have been fighting a surge in stigma thanks to perennial (and wildly incorrect) assertions that mental illness causes violence. That omission was clearly deliberate, given the meticulous level of crafting that goes into writing one of the most important speeches of a presidential candidate’s career.
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The nominee’s speech would have been remarkable on its own, but what made it truly outstanding is that it was far from the first appearance of disability at this year’s Democratic National Convention (DNC). The convention included disabled people every evening as part of a larger inclusive policy that made 2016 a banner year for disability rights activists, who are used to being invisible. These kinds of appearances normalized disability, presenting it as a part of some people’s lives and a source of pride, not shame or misery.
On Monday, for example, disability rights activist Anastasia Somoza rolled out to give a sharp, compelling speech that didn’t cast disability in a tragic or exceptional light. She wasn’t the only wheelchair user to appear on the DNC stage—Paralympic athlete Mallory Weggemann led the pledge of allegiance on a different evening. Dynah Haubert, an attorney for Disability Rights Pennsylvania, took the stage on Tuesday. Nor were wheelchair users the only disabled people represented. Ryan Moore, a longtime friend of Clinton’s, spoke about health care and his experiences as a man with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenital syndrome, a form of dwarfism. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy talked about his learning disabilities. Musician Demi Lovato, who has bipolar disorder, took on mental health.
Former Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, a nondisabled man who played an instrumental role in the push to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, taught the crowd sign language during a lively speech about the fight for disability rights on Tuesday, the 26th anniversary of the landmark legislation.
On Wednesday night, former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) strode out onto the DNC stage in Philadelphia, smiling and waving at the crowd, to make a few short remarks. “Speaking is difficult for me,” she concluded, “but come January 2017 I want to say these two words: ‘Madam President.'” Her speech was about gun violence—a subject with which she’s intimately familiar after being shot in the head in 2011.
This level of representation is unprecedented. Some speakers, like Somoza, explicitly talked about disability rights, putting the subject in the spotlight in a way it’s never been at previous conventions. Others, like Giffords, came up on stage to talk about something else entirely—and happened to represent disability while they were at it. Similarly, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a decorated combat veteran and double amputee, talked about military policy.
This is a striking contrast from the treatment of disability at previous Democratic National Conventions: When disabled people have appeared, it’s often been in the form of a lackluster performance that objectifies disability, rather than celebrating it, as in 1996 when former actor Christopher Reeve framed disability as a medical tragedy.
Disability rights activists have spent decades fighting for this kind of representation. In 1992, two years after the passage of the ADA, the platform included just three mentions of disability. This year, the subject comes up in 36 instances, woven throughout the platform for an integrated approach to disability as a part of society, rather than as something that needs to be walled off into a tiny section of the platform, tokenized, and then dismissed.
In the intervening years, disabled people in the United States have fought for the enforcement of the ADA, and taken the right to independent living to court in 1999’s Olmsted v. L.C., which was namechecked in the 2000 platform and then forgotten. Disabled people advocated to have their rights in school codified with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004, pushed for inclusion in 2010’s Affordable Care Act, and are fighting to pass the Community Choice Act and Disability Integration Act (DIA). Disability rights in the United States has come a long way since 1990’s infamous Capitol Crawl, in which disability rights activists dragged themselves up the steps of the U.S. Capitol, pleading with Congress to pass the ADA.
And as activists have pushed for progress in the courts and in Congress, disability rights have slowly become more prominent in the Democratic party platform. The ADA has been a consistent theme, appearing in every platform since 1992 alongside brief references to civil rights; historically, however, the focus has been on disability as a medical issue. The 1996 platform introduced Medicare, and health care in general, as issues important to the disability community, a refrain that was reiterated in years to come. In numerous years, Democrats addressed concerns about long-term care, in some cases positioning disabled people as objects of care rather than independent people. Disabled veterans have also played a recurring role in the platform’s discussion of military issues. But beyond these topics—again, often approached from a dehumanizing angle—and the occasional lip service to concerns about discrimination and equal rights, until the 2000s, education was the only really consistent disability issue.
In 2000, however, the Democrats went big, building on eight years under President Bill Clinton, and the influence of his then-first lady. For the first time, disability wasn’t simply lumped under “civil rights.” The platform explicitly called out the need for protection from disability hate crimes, but it also began to introduce the idea that there were other issues of relevance to the disability with a discussion of the digital divide and the obstacles that held disabled people back. Almost 30 years after the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which barred disability discrimination by government agencies and contractors, the Democrats were starting to embrace issues like accessibility and independent living, which also played a prominent role in 2000.
And this week, the efforts of a generation of disability rights activists are on display everywhere in Philadelphia, where Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky observed that accessibility is a top priority across the city. The DNC is providing expanded accessible seating, wheelchair charging stations, service dog relief areas, Braille materials, closed captioning, American Sign Language interpreters, medication refrigerators, and more. That’s radical inclusion at work, and the result of incredible efforts by disability rights organizers—including the 400 delegates who disclosed disabilities.
Those same organizers have been hounding the presidential candidates, holding them accountable on disability over and over again. They’ve brought up concerns about independent living, wage disparities, education, access to services, accessibility, hate crimes, reproductive rights, the “marriage penalty” and government benefits, and casual disablism in campaign rhetoric and practices. Advocates leaned on the Clinton campaign until it began captioning its content, for example. RespectAbility sent journalists out on the trail, #CriptheVote organized Twitter, and Rev Up encouraged people to register to vote and get involved. The disability community may be more explicitly politically active this year than ever before, and the DNC has been responding accordingly.
Notably, in a platform that has loudly called for a Hyde Amendment repeal and pushed for other abortion rights, the Democrats have also reinforced the need for access to reproductive health for disabled people, a revolutionary clause that’s gone virtually unnoticed.
This is a platform—and convention—of aggressive inclusion, and it reflects a victory for disabled people in the United States. It does still lack some components the disability community would like to see, like a shoutout to the DIA, which Clinton supports. This is, however, the start of what looks like a robust and real relationship between the Democrats and the disability rights community.