Wednesday, April 28, 2021
Call for Proposals: Worldwide Online Conference - Turning Challenges into Opportunities: Justice Education in Times of Crisis
In June, a worldwide online conference will be co-hosted by the Global Alliance for Justice Education, the International Journal of Clinical Legal Education, and the Association for Canadian Clinical Legal Education, “Turning Challenges into Opportunities: Justice Education in Times of Crisis.” The conference will include symposia and interactive workshops. Symposia papers (with video presentations) submissions (organized by IJCLE) close May 7. Interactive workshop proposals (organized by GAJE) also close May 7.
Interactive Workshop Proposals: https://gaje.org/Upcoming-Conferences#Submission
Symposia Papers and Video Proposals: https://northumbria.ac.uk/about-us/news-events/turning-challenges-into-opportunities
The registration fee for the conference amounts to about $69 USD. https://northumbria.ac.uk/about-us/news-events/turning-challenges-into-opportunities/fees-and-registration
Interactive Workshop Proposals: https://gaje.org/Upcoming-Conferences#Submission
Symposia Papers and Video Proposals: https://northumbria.ac.uk/about-us/news-events/turning-challenges-into-opportunities
Tuesday, April 27, 2021
By Emily Horsford, 3L and Student Attorney with the Human Rights at Home Litigation Clinic at St. Louis University School of Law
Labor trafficking is modern-day slavery. People, often immigrants, are forced to perform work through the use of force or fraud. Victims are kept enslaved through violence, threats and coercion. This is an ongoing issue in our world today.
Mario said goodbye to his wife and daughters and began the long, slow walk to freedom. Thirty-three days later, he crossed the border into the United States of America—the land of the free. He came here because economic opportunities in his native country of Guatemala are nonexistent. He came here because America is the land of opportunity; a place where anyone who works hard can succeed. He came here because America promises a refuge for those who yearn to breathe free, for the homeless, for the tempest-tossed. He came here because, to the world, America means freedom.
For Mario, America did not live up to her promises. After several years of transient living around the country, Mario came to St. Louis, Missouri, lured by the promise of a job in construction that included housing. He worked hard. He did good work. He didn’t complain. For three months, Mario worked despite never being paid for his efforts. When his co-workers pressed their boss, he threatened to call the police. Scared of that threat because of their illegal status, the men continued to work for free, once for 23 hours straight. Mario kept his head down and did what he knew how to do: he worked hard.
Then, just a week before Thanksgiving, the boss gathered the mostly Latin American workers together and told them they were fired and evicted from the job-sponsored housing. Mario had nowhere to go. He was still owed thousands of dollars for all of his hard work. Wasn’t this America, the place where you worked hard and were rewarded with success? In confusion, Mario put all his belongings into a storage locker and sought help from a church. The church directed him to an attorney who could help him file a lawsuit to attempt to recover some of his unpaid wages. The case is ongoing.
In the meantime, Mario lives in an apartment with another of the fired workers, Julian, and Julian’s wife and three children. Without a job bringing in any money, Mario lost all of his belongings when he couldn’t pay the storage unit fees. Work has been uncertain and sporadic. Mario hopes the lawsuit will resolve in his favor, giving him some of his wages from the many months of work he did. In the meantime, he waits.
Mario’s story is, unfortunately, not unique. There are thousands of immigrants trafficked each year in America. They are forced to work without pay or in dangerous conditions and when they complain, they are threatened. Fearful of their legal status being discovered, confused about their rights, hesitant to make trouble, they suffer in silence. This is modern-day slavery and it must be stopped. That leads us to the question: What can be done?
In the long term, America needs a comprehensive overhaul of its immigration laws. With partisan gridlock, that may not occur for quite some time but that doesn’t mean all is lost. More immediate solutions are available. President Joe Biden campaigned on reducing trafficking in the United States. We must hold him to those promises. More support should be given to victims’ rights groups including assistance in paths to citizenship.
In 2000, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act was passed, creating the T Visa, a visa designed to protect victims of trafficking. Twenty-plus years later, this visa is under-utilized. An emphasis must be placed on helping trafficking victims apply for this visa so they can stay in America and help prosecute their abusers. By cracking down on those who utilize enforced labor, our government can help victims of trafficking move forward in their lives. Then, aid organizations can step in and provide assistance for these victims to become citizens and productive members of American society.
Those who exploit workers must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and used as an example of the pain and punishment awaiting any who might be considering using trafficked labor. Americans must show the world that we have banished slavery to the history books and it is not tolerated by our citizens today.
For those inclined, there are numerous organizations dedicated to helping trafficking victims that can use your financial support: https://castla.nationbuilder.com/donate; https://donate.polarisproject.org/page/54176/donate/1
Monday, April 26, 2021
Co-Editor Sital Kalantry published an Op-Ed titled Lessons from India on the issue of Supreme Court justice term limits with The Hill on April 20, 2021. Excerpt below.
"In response to calls to reform the Supreme Court, President Biden created a new commission to study the idea of increasing its size and adding term limits for justices. The panel should avoid falling into the old trap that the United States has little to learn from other countries. The Supreme Court of India, the largest common law bench in the world with jurisdiction over one billion people, suggests that imposing term limits on justices could negatively affect independence. A Supreme Court with a revolving door could also flip flop on issues of major significance such as abortion."
Sunday, April 25, 2021
Truth-telling is an indispensable part—but only one part—of the moral universe’s arc bending towards justice. To achieve critical impact, truth-telling must be seen, received, and acted upon.
Truth-telling has often come through the camera lens. Mike Wallace used it effectively in 60 Minutes back in the day. Its documentation of war or famine has been useful to tell the world of these tragedies.
A new day, a new camera lens—the lens of the cellphone camera. This lens has documented truths to us all. The truth of the beating and killing of black and brown persons by the police. A truth already known to many but disbelieved or ignored by others. Because of this camera lens, white people cannot no longer credibly deny this truth.
Derick Chauvin is convicted by the truth told through Darnella Frazier’s cellphone camera. Darnella Frazier, thank you for showing us the truth.
There have been multiple killings by police in the week since Derick Chauvin’s conviction. In two cases, the truth-telling lenses are police body cameras. The videos were released quickly in one case and are still being withheld in the other. The videos must be released so that the camera lens may continue to serve its truth telling function, which can, if allowed, lead to accountability.
Say their names:
Ma’Khia Bryant 16
Andrew Brown, Jr. 42
Wednesday, April 21, 2021
Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on guilty verdict in George Floyd case
Geneva, 21 April 2021
“This is a momentous verdict. It is also a testament to the courage and perseverance of George Floyd’s family and many others in calling for justice. As the jury recognised, the evidence in this case was crystal clear. Any other result would have been a travesty of justice.
But for countless other victims of African descent and their families, in the United States and throughout the world, the fight for justice goes on. The battle to get cases of excessive force or killings by police before the courts, let alone win them, is far from over.
Impunity for crimes and human rights violations by law enforcement officers must end, and we need to see robust measures to prevent further arbitrary killings. As we have painfully witnessed in recent days and weeks, reforms to policing departments across the US continue to be insufficient to stop people of African descent from being killed. It is time to move on from talk of reform to truly rethinking policing as currently practised in the US and elsewhere.
This case has also helped reveal, perhaps more clearly than ever before, how much remains to be done to reverse the tide of systemic racism that permeates the lives of people of African descent. We need to move to whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches that dismantle systemic racism.
I recognize that in the US important steps are being put in place with that end in mind. These efforts must accelerate and expand, and must not be diluted when the public focus moves elsewhere.
Now is also the time to critically examine the context in which George Floyd’s killing took place by revisiting the past, and examining its toxic traces in today’s society. The redesign of our future can only be through the full and equal participation of people of African descent, and in ways which transform their interactions with law enforcement, and, more broadly, in all aspects of their lives.
The entrenched legacy of discriminatory policies and systems, including the legacies of enslavement and transatlantic trade and the impact of colonialism, must be decisively uprooted in order to achieve racial justice and equality. If they are not, the verdict in this case will just be a passing moment when the stars aligned for justice, rather than a true turning point.”
Link to statement here.
Tuesday, April 20, 2021
Call for Proposals: University of Dayton Human Rights Center's The Social Practice of Human Rights Conference
The Human Rights Center at the University of Dayton will convene the 2021 Social Practice of Human Rights Conference in December 2021 and will focus on the challenges and opportunities the pandemic has created for human rights advocacy. The deadline for submissions is June 1, 2021.
The Call for Proposals states that submissions are welcome on the following:
- New or refined tools, methods, and strategies for advocacy emerging during the pandemic, including in transnational advocacy and international institutions;
- Confronting historical legacies of abuse in moments of flux and transition, including reshaping public spaces (eg. memorials, schools) to advance justice;
- New forms of public-private partnerships in human rights and corporate-sector advocacy, including by labor and employee movements; and
- The emergence of intersectional advocacy groups, movements, and networks building relationships across borders and connecting issue areas that leverage this particular political moment.
I attended this conference in 2015 and loved the mix of scholars and practitioners, lawyers and non-lawyers, all in dialogue with one another.
Monday, April 19, 2021
Lucía Falcón Palomar, Obinna Maduka and JoAnn Kamuf Ward, The U.S. Water and Wastewater Crisis – How Many Wake-up Calls Are Enough? Just Security (Apr. 8, 2021), https://www.justsecurity.org/75686/the-u-s-water-and-wastewater-crisis-how-many-wake-up-calls-are-enough/. Excerpt below.
“In February, much of Texas plunged into darkness when the state’s electricity grid failed due to extreme cold weather conditions. What started as a foreseeable blackout quickly became a life-threatening calamity. The frigid temperatures cracked pipes and froze wells. To escape the frigid cold, have drinking water, and flush toilets, Texans were forced to boil snow and icicles. The extreme weather conditions and lack of basic amenities resulted in several fatal cases of hypothermia, frostbite, and carbon monoxide poisoning. More than 14 million people in Texas were affected, and lost access to clean water at the height of the crisis. At the beginning of March, there were still nearly 390,000 people who did not have water safe enough to drink in their homes…However, even a cursory look at the United States shows that inadequate water and sanitation are more of a norm than an exception.”
Sunday, April 18, 2021
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has announced that the 180th Period of Sessions (June 21-July 2nd) will be again held virtually. The portal for requesting hearings and working meetings for the 180th Period of Sessions is open until April 21, 2021. Information available here.
In other news, the United States has nominated human rights law professor Alexandra Huneeus for the position of Commissioner on the IACHR for the 2022-2025 term. The United States has nominated Ms. Alexandra Huneeus, J.D., Ph.D., for the position of Commission on the IACHR for the 2022-2025 term. Her CV is available here and the nomination letter from the U.S. Permanent Mission to the OAS is available here.
Thank you to Professor Sarah Paoletti for this info!
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
New Article: Implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the United States: A Call to Action for Inspired Advocacy in Indian Country
Kristen Carpenter, Edyael Casaperalta, and Danielle Lazore-Thompson, Implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the United States: A Call to Action for Inspired Advocacy in Indian Country, U. Colo. L. Rev. Forum (Mar. 6, 2020). Introduction excerpt below:
In 2007, following decades of advocacy by indigenous peoples, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Declaration). This is a standard-setting document supported by the 148 member nations, including the United States, committing to the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples. These rights include the right to self-determination, equality, property, culture, and economic well-being. John Echohawk, Executive Director of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), has said that the Declaration affirms many of the rights for which American Indians have been fighting throughout generations. It “recognizes the rights of [indigenous] people to self determination, their traditional lands, and their cultures and religions,” all central aspects of tribal sovereignty. According to Echohawk, it was the tribal leaders who pushed President Barack Obama to express national support for the Declaration in hope that it would “help the tribes prevail in the U.S. judicial, legislative, and administrative forums.”
Today’s challenge is to realize the promises of the Declaration in the lives of indigenous peoples. In 2018, the University of Colorado Law School (CU Law) and NARF committed to working on this challenge in the context of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian rights. Together they launched the joint “Project to Implement the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the United States” (Project). In 2019, CU Law and NARF held a joint conference to set the groundwork for the Project (the Conference), gathering tribal leaders, attorneys, scholars, students, activists, and others to share ideas about the current state of federal Indian law and how the Declaration might be used to inform advocacy in the field. This Report provides a summary of the Conference and suggests next steps for assessing and advancing use of the Declaration in advocacy regarding indigenous peoples’ rights in the United States.
Tuesday, April 13, 2021
Congratulations to the members of the newly established White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council!
Establishing the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) is a historic step towards expanding environmental human rights in the U.S. and I am so pleased to see human rights friends and advocates Catherine Flowers, Michele Roberts, Juan Parras, Dr. Robert Bullard, and Dr. Beverly Wright appointed as WHEJAC members!
The new WHEJAC is tasked with increasing the Federal Government’s efforts to address environmental injustice and its efforts are to include "a broad range of strategic, scientific, technological, regulatory, community engagement, and economic issues related to environmental justice." WHEJAC held its first meeting on March 30, 2021. Be on the look out for future WHEJAC meetings to be announced here.
This news follows shortly after UN human rights experts again raised concerns about "Cancer Alley" in Louisiana in a joint statement released last week. In that joint statement, several UN human rights experts applauded Biden's executive order on Tackling the Climate Crisis, which establishing WHEJAC.
Monday, April 12, 2021
In the wake of the COVID pandemic, there is no doubt that the nation will face a crisis of evictions and foreclosures, similar to what was seen as a result of the 2008 financial collapse. This, in turn, will lead to an increase in homelessness, which disproportionately impacts communities of color. While moratoria on evictions and foreclosures are good and necessary, they cannot go on indefinitely, and they cannot solve the underlying crisis, which may result in tens of millions of people facing homelessness.
There are several things that we, as a nation, must do to prepare for, and hopefully stem, the upcoming crisis. One is to fund and support our Legal Aid and Legal Services organizations, which offer assistance -- through free legal representation -- in stopping evictions, foreclosures, in filing chapter 7 and chapter 13 bankruptcy cases, and in obtaining public benefits.
At all levels of government, funds must be made available to assist tenants and homeowners in paying off rental and mortgage arrears to stay in their homes. The Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) was very successful in making it possible for individuals to stay in their homes by modifying their mortgages. The New York State Mortgage Assistance Program (MAP) program provided 0% interest loans to homeowners at risk of foreclosure. Programs similar to these are needed urgently today for homeowners and renters facing eviction or foreclosure.
The courts also have a role to play in creating conditions conducive to lessening the impact of this crisis by mandating settlement conferences in eviction, foreclosure, and bankruptcy cases, and encouraging parties to reach settlements, which will allow people to remain in their homes.
As individuals, we can donate to Legal Aid, Legal Services and related organizations. We can put pressure on our elected officials to fund these organizations as well as programs that provide direct grants and loans to homeowners and tenants at risk of eviction or foreclosure.
Finally, we can be on the front lines by applying to work or volunteer for Legal Aid, Legal Services, and related organization as attorneys, paralegals, or other staff members. There has been much lofty talk of late about building a more equitable future, on the other side of the pandemic. If this is to be more than idle chatter, we must begin with the least well-off, including the homeless and those facing homelessness.
Sunday, April 11, 2021
Please join Northeastern Law School's Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy, the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center, and the Raoul Wallenberg Institute for a webinar on Wednesday April 14, 10 a.m. - 11:15 a.m. EDT, marking the publication of the new Research Handbook on Human Rights and Poverty (Elgar 2021), https://www.e-elgar.com/shop/usd/research-handbook-on-human-rights-and-poverty-9781788977500.html.
Info on webinar registration is below:
Thursday, April 8, 2021
The following UN Human Rights Mechanisms have issued calls for inputs with deadlines in April and May 2021 and law professors whose research and scholarship touches on these topics may be interested in submission:
Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery – Call for inputs on the role of organized criminal groups with regard to contemporary forms of slavery. Deadline April 16, 2021. Read more.
Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights – Call for inputs from States and Stakeholders to inform a thematic report on the lifecycle of plastics and human rights. Deadline April 21, 2021. Read more.
Special Rapporteur on violence against women – Call for inputs to inform the Special Rapporteur’s report on femicide. Deadline April 30, 2021. Read more.
Independent Expert on human rights and the environment – Call for inputs on healthy and sustainable food: reducing the environmental impacts of the global food system on human rights. Deadline May 1, 2021. Read more.
Special Rapporteur on the sale of children – Call for inputs on the gender dimensions of the sale and sexual exploitation of children and the importance of integrating a human rights-based and a non-binary approach to combating and eradicating sale and sexual exploitation of children. Deadline May 10, 2021. Read more.
This information was compiled from https://ohchr.org/EN/Pages/calls-for-input.aspx.
Wednesday, April 7, 2021
By Abigail Ramos, 2L at the City University of New York School of Law.
Little has changed for farmworkers since the original enactment of the Federal Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) in 1938. Along with domestic workers, Congress carved out farmworkers from the legislation’s bedrock promise of overtime. As a result, people who cultivate, pick, and package our food do not get fairly compensated for their backbreaking work and about 30 percent live below the poverty line.
At the time of passage, Black people comprised the majority of farmworkers. The bill was unlikely to pass without the support of southern Democrats, who required the racially motivated exclusion for their vote on the bill to maintain white farmers’ exploitive labor practices. Presently, there are more than 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the United States, 68 percent of whom are from Mexico. Even now, their continued exclusion is rooted in the country’s reliance on unethical and racialized labor.
No federal court has moved the needle in reversing the statute’s harm. For this reason, states have played a crucial role in guaranteeing overtime pay. Currently, only six states have some form of overtime protections for farmworkers. In New York, overtime is considered after 60 hours worked whereas in California, phase-in legislation provided for overtime after 45 hours worked starting in 2021. Last November, the Washington state supreme court in Martinez-Cuevas v. DeRuyter Bros. Dairy, 475 P.3d 164 (2020), held that farmworkers were entitled to overtime after 40 hours worked under the state constitution.
The 5-4 decision interpreted Article II, Section 35 of the state’s constitution, which requires the legislature to pass “necessary laws for the protection of” workers in employment “dangerous to life or deleterious to health.” Dairy workers argued that they fell under this classification. The court firmly concluded that dairy workers were protected by the state constitution, citing 24-hour milking for 3,000 cows every day as an example of their grueling work conditions. Additionally, the defendant DeRuyter Brothers Dairy forced workers to stay until all cows were milked. The court relied on statistics regarding the injury rate for dairy workers, which in 2015 was “121 percent higher than all other state industries combined and 19 percent higher than the entire agricultural sector.”
The legal victory was the result a unique collaboration between Familias Unidas Por La Justicia (FUJ), Columbia Legal Services (CLS), and Frank Freed Subit & Thomas LLP. FUJ is an “independent farmworker union of indigenous families” formed in 2013 in the west side of Washington state. The union has been a catalyst in pushing for political and cultural shifts in farmworker issues. It has frequently partnered with CLS since its creation, also winning the right to paid rest breaks for farmworkers and requiring employers to provide reasonable access to bathrooms and toilet facilities for farmworkers.
There are more than 100,000 farmworkers in Washington state who benefit from the decision. “Our union has stepped up to it almost unintentionally, but the opportunities are there for us to do more than just a contract,” Edgar Franks, Political Director of FUJ, told HRAH Blog. “A contract [is] awesome because we helped 500 farmworkers here in Skagit [County]. But these lawsuits have the potential of helping hundreds of thousands.”
The celebratory win for this historic decision was cut short, after state Republicans responded with SB 5172, proposed legislation that would have overturned the decision. Originally, in reaction to the agricultural industry’s cry that it would be unable to pay overtime costs, the bill would have limited the court’s ability to grant overtime pay when it would “create a substantially inequitable result.” It was proposed by two state Senators with close ties to the pro-farmer group Washington Farm Bureau. But after FUJ intervened, the proposal was amended to include the compromise of a three-year phase-in period, similar to California’s, and is pending in the state house.
“We didn’t want the phase-in. We wanted it straight out to get implemented,” Franks responded. “[F]or 60 years, workers were denied these benefits intentionally and that was to the benefit to the industry.”
As Washington joins the small list of states remedying nearly a century of injustice, Franks hopes more people will not only become aware of the challenges farmworkers face in their own communities but will partake in the workers’ movements. He said, “Everybody has a role to play in supporting farmworkers, whether it be just community people or churches or students and lawyers: all of us have a role.”
Tuesday, April 6, 2021
On April 8th and 9th, 2021, the American University Washington College of Law International Human Rights Law Clinic will hold live Zoom panels discussing advocacy and litigation efforts against solitary confinement in the United States. This event will feature stories from solitary confinement survivors and provide a platform for attorneys and human rights advocates to present their work fighting against solitary confinement. Attendance is free, but registration is required. Registration is available:
April 8, 2021, 12-1:30pm ET - Day 1 Strategies to Combat U.S. Solitary Confinement: Domestic Legal Approaches https://bit.ly/31EhGrd
April 9, 2021, 12-1:30pm ET - Day 2 Strategies to Combat U.S. Solitary Confinement: International Legal Approaches https://bit.ly/3wmiglc
Monday, April 5, 2021
Over at the LPE Blog, Professor Shirley Lin writes about the law and political economy of disability accommodations. A defining feature of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the accommodations mandate was drafted with a transformative social model of disability in mind. However, Congress essentially delegated the design for this mandate to the Reagan-era EEOC, which in turn operationalized accommodations through de facto bargaining between employees and employers. By evaluating new empirical evidence relating to race, class, and gender and the theories underlying the mandate, her forthcoming article argues that market logic further limited its redistributive work and society’s ability to critique its effectiveness. In response, her article proposes reallocations of power so that the state can: gather and publicize organizational precedent to enable structural analysis and regulation at scale; legally recognize that dismantling ableist environments and discrimination are collective endeavors; and expand the social insurance model for accommodations through tax policy. Read more here.
Sunday, April 4, 2021
On April 12 and 16, 2021, the University of Miami School of Law International and Graduate Law Programs and Human Rights Clinic, in collaboration with the Human Rights Society, Health Law Association, and University of Miami International and Comparative Law Review —will examine the impact of COVID-19 on international law through a virtual symposium. Speakers include:
- Claudio Grossman, Professor of Law, Dean Emeritus, Raymond I. Geraldson Scholar for International and Humanitarian Law, American University Washington College of Law; Member, UN International Law Commission
- Leilani Farha, former UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing; Global Director, The Shift
- Charles C. Jalloh, Professor of Law, Florida International University College of Law; Member, UN International Law Commission
- Antonia Urrejola Noguera, President, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
- Nilüfer Oral, Law Faculty, Istanbul Bilgi University; Member, UN International Law Commission
To register and for more information please visit: https://www.law.miami.edu/academics/clinics/human-rights-clinic/international-law-covid19-symposium
Wednesday, March 31, 2021
By Jeremiah Ho
My first “formal” lesson about American racism was in the second grade when Ms. Wildermuth taught us about the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in tandem with his birthday holiday. This was January 1984, a little over a year after my family and I had immigrated to Orange County, California from Taipei, Taiwan. My fluency in English was deepening. After a year in ESL, I was more frequently forming my thoughts in English (thus, abandoning my thinking in Mandarin) and often called upon at school to interpret for my older cousins who had also just moved to the U.S. and attended the same elementary school. In Ms. Wildermuth’s classroom, I sat next to Melanie, the only African-American girl in our class. As we listened to Ms. Wildermuth trace Dr. King’s heroism to the history of enslaved peoples and followed along with the lesson packet that she had given us, I had a strangely comforting thought that perhaps this hatred and prejudice that white people held against outsiders were exclusively directed toward African-Americans and that perhaps people like me were spared because we weren’t Black. I hoped that this were true. It seemed logical—after all, Ms. Wildermuth’s lesson about American racial prejudice didn’t mention any Chinese people. I’m sorry, Melanie, I thought turning to her on my left. Tag, and you’re it.
This idea, of course, was naïve thinking. Separate from this formal lesson on racism, I had already garnered a few informal ones so far in my short time here. In the prior year, during those early months of first grade, when I had to guess what schoolteachers were saying to me and when simple words in the English language were still escapable, had I not been made to feel like an outsider? The first time classmates used their index fingers to pull up their eyes at me, I had no clue of their intentions. But by the third or the fourth time, when I realized the gesture was to mark me as different and foreign, a feeling of threat and loneliness then calcified. In response, wasn’t that why had I suddenly taken up an American first name and insisted that everyone from the school-bus driver to the cafeteria ladies stop calling me by the phonetically-translated Chinese name on my official documents? Wasn’t that the reason why I consciously imitated the way the American kids spoke English so that I could flatten out my accent? Wasn’t that exactly why I was thinking in English so that perhaps American was something I could become? Didn’t these incidents also amount to lessons on racism—however informal, and self-taught?
That night, not only did I relay to my parents what we had learned about MLK, Jr. but also my thoughts that we were safe because we weren’t Black. I assumed I was delivering good news, in the way I had, as the interpreter in the family, been able to sometimes unlock confusion. Perhaps this was a moment I could translate America for my parents, give them a lesson for once. Because they were definitely foreigners compared to me and my burgeoning assimilation. To my surprise, my parents rejected my logic. They chuckled nervously and then the weighted seriousness in their voices relayed how far I had misperceived the entire predicament of racialized America. White people can still hate us because we are outsiders to them, they said. Let us tell you about the story of a Chinese man in Detroit who was beaten to death by some Americans who hated Japanese people and had mistaken him for being Japanese. This was the recent story of Vincent Chin—my second lesson of the same day about another person who was killed for what the color of their skin signified. The feelings of safety that had trailed me home after school were suddenly swept gone. “So just keep your head down,” my father concluded with a solution, a verbal, solemn pat on my head. My mother, the usually more feisty parent, disagreed at first but eventually thought pacifying was best. “Just make sure you tell us if someone treats you badly.”
I never did, nor would. A few weeks later when an older white boy at school insisted that I ate cats and should go back home to China, I pretended not to understand what he had said—even though I probably had the exact English words to tell him that China was really not my home. Instead, I pretended not to comprehend. English, after all, was just my second language. I was only starting to learn it.
Because representations of Asian-American and Pacific Islanders are so scant in popular culture and media, I always notice and fixate when there’s an Asian character in film or television or when news items focus on Asian-American experiences in some way. (I do this similarly with queer representations too.) In the last several weeks, I’ve never seen more media and cultural focus on the AAPI community. And I’ve been consuming as much of it as I can find—reading, watching, listening between my online Zoom classes for my law school and office hours; while waiting for responses to an article submission on Scholastica; between conference calls with colleagues during this socially-distanced time. It’s profoundly sad, however, that all of the focus stem not from something positive, but from, first, the horrific shooting at three Asian-owned Atlanta spas by 21-year old Robert Aaron Long, and then more broadly, from the 149% rise in hate incidents against AAPI individuals since the pandemic started. Now it’s the continuing incidents of anti-Asian violence being reported on the news. This week, the video from Manhattan of sixty-five year-old, Vilma Kari, who was beaten outside a luxury apartment complex while the complex’s security guards and workers ignoring the whole situation is just another example of this alarming trend.
On the whole, two-thirds of such hate incidents have occurred against women of Asian descent. Many have connected both the Atlanta shootings, in which 6 of the 8 victims were Asian-American women, and this rising trend of hate and violence directly to the Asian scapegoating and spreading of anti-Asian sentiments during the pandemic—particularly the racist “China-virus” rhetoric widely perpetuated by Donald Trump and his supporters. Two weeks ago, Asian-American congressional legislators reignited urgency to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, and the House held a three-hour hearing on anti-Asian hate and xenophobia, the first time for such a hearing in decades. Yesterday, the White House revealed a half-dozen new actions to respond to these increasing recent attacks and harassment on AAPI individuals and communities. Protests and demonstrates have taken place across the country. It’s been incredibly profound to witness all of this. In thinking about the recent shootings more specifically, I know that Atlanta, Georgia is thousands of miles away from where I am currently in Southern California, but the Asian-American experience is also one that tracks across coasts and connects my family’s lived experiences with these incidents in some broader historical context. We metabolize media news so quickly these days, but for one moment, it seems like we are lingering to acknowledge that the lived experiences of Asian-Americans matter.
My hope is that the loved ones and families of the 8 victims in Atlanta will find healing and peace. And for the sake of the victims’ memories, I also hope that the incident is ultimately understood as being more complex than the reverberations of someone’s “bad day” and that the cultural scapegoating we place on people of color are called out for its deadly perniciousness. The racist rhetoric disseminated during this pandemic and the sexualization of Asian women are both part of the same systemic, marginalizing stroke that the dominant status quo, motivated by white supremacy, has exerted continually against Asian-Americans to “other” us—to keep us wearing the perpetual foreigner hat on our heads. In response, we Asian-Americans have often resorted to “keeping our heads down” and being model citizens, so that they can’t get us or maybe they’ll move onto someone else. Out of caution, we let the racial narrative take its Black-versus-white binary and stay out of harm’s way. Or else, tag, you’re it. The easiest thing is to pick up an Anglo first name; it’s admittedly harder to lose the accent, but not impossible if you try. You just have to have an ear for it. And when they do go after you, just be quiet. Pretend you didn’t hear them; pretend English is a foreign language. Feign ignorance. But know that if you force yourself to stay quiet too long, they’ll put a narrative on you, too—they’ll fill in their version of you in the blanks. Or put words in your mouth and tell you to perform. Usually for their advantage. You’ll be the good perpetual foreigner. You’re the smart Asian. The dependable one. Harmless. The emasculated male. Fu-Manchu. The submissive but hyper-sexualized vamp with a heart of gold. Suzy Wong, Cio-Cio San, Miss Saigon—take your pick. The one with not enough personality for an Ivy League education. Math nerd. Invisible. The good POC. The model. Crazy rich and also crazy poor. Yellow Peril. The Virus. Very easily our lived experiences are erased, replaced with convenient cultural scripts.
So the surprise that Asian-Americans have suffered within the larger racial discord in this country is unfortunate. The rest of the country is waking up to something that’s always been there for us. I got good enough trying to “be American” that a law school classmate later said to me, “But Jerry, you’re not like those Asians.” So good, so invisible that years later when I was employed at a predominately white place of work, a co-worker lamented during a group diversity training session that the problem with race at our workplace was that “We didn’t have any people of color.” I pretended not to have heard that. Later when another colleague approached me about it, asking whether I had felt marginalized, I lied to her, saying that I hadn’t been paying attention. A white lie to a white colleague, because my instinct was to not rock the boat. Last summer, when I was trying to convey to the dean of my law school that I was hesitant to fly back to the Northeast if the university reverted to in-person teaching, I stuck to the public health script rather than bring up my fears of safety as an Asian-American living alone in New England, away from family and community. Have you seen the videos of people like me being taunted in the subway? Being blamed for the virus? Being told to go back home to China? I felt too ashamed to go there, even though I knew my dean would have understood. It wouldn’t matter anyway, I thought then. I’ll just keep my head down and nothing will happen. Naïve thinking.
The reluctance of law enforcement to see anti-Asian racism in the Atlanta shootings is another attempt to fill in the blanks for us—the plausible deniability that comes from deliberately not seeing color. But the lived experiences of AAPIs do matter. We are not your model minority one second and then invisible the next. The moment for AAPI individuals to be interpreters of this tragedy and this bias is now upon us. We know that language well. This time, I hope we won’t be silenced.
Tuesday, March 30, 2021
On World Health Day, April 7, from 12:10 – 1:30 pm., Northeastern Law School’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economic (PHRGE) and the Center for Health Law and Policy will host a special Roundtable program honoring the life and work of Mariah McGill, NUSL '09. Mariah, who had served as PHRGE’s Assistant Director, was fatally struck by a car on October 26, 2020. At the time of the accident, Mariah was a regional coordinator at Building Bright Futures in Williston, VT, and a senior fellow of PHRGE.
Mariah was passionate supporter of the human right to health, as reflected in her writings and activism. On April 7, Roundtable speakers will present their work and discuss the connection to Mariah's research and efforts. In this way, the event will build on Mariah's legacy and commitment to health equity and human rights.
Speakers include Professor Martha Davis (NUSL), Professor Gillian MacNaughton (UMass Boston), Esther Kamau (UMass Boston), and Dr. Anja Rudiger (Partners for Dignity and Rights). More information and program registration is available here.
Monday, March 29, 2021
Nancy Kelehar, 20 Years of Detention: Decision Time for Biden on Guantanamo Bay, Human Rights Pulse (March 22, 2021). An excerpt:
"As we approach the 20th anniversary since almost 3,000 people lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks, the 19 years of human rights abuses and crimes under international law committed at Guantánamo Bay should be recognised and ended..."