The past week we’ve seen a media firestorm developing around the identity of Rachel Dolezal, erstwhile president of the Spokane NAACP, professor of Africana Studies and, by her parents’ account, a white woman who identifies and lives as a Black woman. This story brings up a national conversation about racial identity, appropriation, and the similarities and differences between racial identity and gender identity (given how many times comparisons between Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner are made).
With Dolezal herself now hitting the news and talk circuit, the story seems far from quieting. But, the questions of race and identity that Dolezal’s story raise, while sometimes interesting, are focused on a single woman, born to two white parents, and her claim to Black identity. Questions of police brutality, racial profiling, violence against women and girls of color, meanwhile, have taken a backseat to speculations about whether this one woman has an authentic (whatever that is) claim to Blackness (many open questions about what this is, too). For those of us interested in racial justice, this has been an important week. Not at all because of Rachel Dolezal, however.
Here just a few of the stories you might have missed this week, and if we care about racial justice, in particular about racism against black and brown people, we’d do well to know and engage them as fiercely as we are the case of Ms. Dolezal:
1. What’s happening, as we speak, in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Beginning today, the Dominican Republic is planning to deport more than 100,000 people to Haiti. These people were born in the Dominican Republic, and are being asked to leave on the basis that they are the descendants of undocumented migrant workers whose forbearers came into the country in the early 1900s to work in sugar plantations. They are almost all poor workers who never legalized their residency status.
Critics of the government say that this is an anti-black policy rooted in the desire to preserve a non-Black national identity, couched under the pretense of immigration policy change. Further, many of those deported will become stateless migrants, having no family or connections in Haiti, and would not be eligible for Haitian citizenship. Currently, the Dominican government (having come under considerable fire for it’s xenophobia and racist treatment of Haitians) is leveraging their military to pick up anyone who looks Haitian (read: dark-skinned/Black) and drop them off on the Haitian side of the border.
This policy raises questions about anti-black racism, xenophobia and the rights of migrants. Haiti is a country ravaged by both natural disaster and unchecked neoliberal “free-trade” policies. This discriminatory program only deepens the impacts of such anti-Black, anti-migrant polices.
2. Texas’ Detention Centers
Not that racist, anti-immigrant policies are soley the purview of other countries.
Six women, new mothers who are undocumented immigrants not born in the United States, have filed a lawsuit against Texas Department of State Health Services alleging that the department has an undeclared policy preventing its employees from issuing birth certificates to their children because of their own documentation status. This, despite the fact that children born on American soil to undocumented immigrants are indeed legal U.S. citizens.
The women filing the lawsuit are not first-time mothers and have had other children born in Texas, stating that previously they certificates for their children without delay, and by presenting the exact same documents. Jennifer Harbury, an attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid said, "It's not up to the state to decide on immigration policy. This is a federal issue," adding that these families “shouldn't have to spend months trying to scramble for medical care, school enrollment and educational projects. They need to get their benefits as U.S. citizens."
As you read this, the construction of the largest immigration detention center in the country is almost complete. In Dilley, TX a new detention center will house thousands of women and children who are seeing asylum in the US. Last month, 188 organizations around the country sent a letter to President Obama calling for just practices for these women and children who face serious harm to their physical and mental health as a result of being held in confinement, in many cases without adequate food, water, and medicine. One detainee at the Karnes Detention Center recently attempted suicide, allegedly due to the inhumane conditions inside the detention center. Along with Dilley, Karnes has come under fire after reports of physical and mental abuse, poor medical treatment, and hunger strikes by detainees. All this prompted U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to tour the Karnes County Residential Center on Monday.
All this information about our immigration policy, for women and children yes, but for all immigrants alike has queued up to be a hot-button issue during the 2016 Presidential Election. Yesterday, in his announcement to run for President, perennial candidate Donald Trump asserted,
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people…
It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably— probably— from the Middle East. But we don’t know. Because we have no protection and we have no competence, we don’t know what’s happening. And it’s got to stop and it’s got to stop fast.”
Many of the women and children in the family detention centers are seeking respite from violence against women, as well as intimate partner and domestic violence in their home countries. Surely, we can call for a more humane, nuanced and sound immigration policy than such baseless fearmongering. Only if we are willing to confront what’s happening to immigrants and asylum seekers on our watch.
3. Kenlissia Jones
On the topic of violence against women and children, last week in Georgia, 23-year-old Kenlissia Jones was arrested and held without bond, facing a possible charge of "malice murder," a crime punishable by the death penalty. Her “crime?” That she allegedly used misoprostol, a medication that induces uterine contractions and cervical dilation, to end her own pregnancy.
On the heels of cases like Purvi Patel’s and Bei Bei Shuai’s in Indiana, this case brings up some crucial questions about prosecuting women, thus far only women of color, for having a miscarriage, self-terminating their pregnancies, or in the case of Shuai, attempting suicide while pregnant. The race of the women targeted by feticide legislation is noteworthy in light of a study conducted by National Advocates for Pregnant Women which found that low-income women and women of color are disproportionately arrested under feticide laws. Notably, Black women are significantly more likely to be reported to authorities by hospital staff under suspicion that they harmed their unborn children.
Initially charging her with murder, the prosecutor’s office announced that it would drop the murder charge and released her from jail after finding no legal grounds for such a charge. They are, however, pursuing a "possession of a dangerous drug" charge against Ms. Jones, a misdemeanor, while considering other possible charges against her for ending her own pregnancy. Reported to the police by a hospital social worker, Ms. Jones was arrested and held without bail despite no legal grounds for her arrest.
This treatment of pregnant women, and disproportionately women of color, is vile. If you’d like to sign a petition to the GA prosecutor handling Ms. Jones’ case to stop the prosecution of Kenlissia Jones, find it here.
4. McKinney, Texas. Remember McKinney?
On Monday, the Texas Rangers were asked to perform an independent investigation into the Craig Ranch pool party incident that occurred on June 5 in McKinney, Texas. Recorded by an onlooker, a video shows that the officer violently threw a black teenager to the ground, sat down on her and then drew his firearm on two young men in the area.
Greg Willis, the county DA stated, “I have full confidence in the good men and women of the McKinney Police Department and their ability to fully investigate this matter. At the same time, an independent investigation of this incident will add an important layer of transparency to the process.”
According to their website, “The Texas Ranger Division is a major division within the Texas Department of Public Safety with lead criminal investigative responsibility for the following: major incident crime investigations, unsolved crime/serial crime investigations, public corruption investigations, officer involved shooting investigations, and border security operations.” Questions, remain however. Is the Texas Dept. of Public Safety, essentially another law enforcement agency? Can we expect them to be fair in their assessment of the incident? What is their track record on such issues?
While we are drawn into the inevitable follow-up to the Dolezal story, we might want to make sure we take the time to pay attention to the changing face of the Dominican Republic, and our own policies and practices for dealing with women and children seeking asylum, or merely to control their own reproduction, as well as to the process in McKinney, and whether it is indeed transparent or just.