Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Women's Health

I have talked a bit on this blog about health in general, and women's health in particular.  The latter was discussed in my post about Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  A recent experience of someone close to me has inspired me to expand on that post.

Toward the close of my BCAM post I made the following statement:

Nowhere in these "women's health" and breast cancer awareness campaigns is any attention paid to whether or not women have equal access to healthcare; whether they receive the same treatment/respect by health professionals (in terms of their personal ability to act and make decisions; the assignment of moral culpability; the risks that are taken; and the expectations as to their ability to cope and recover); or how social norms and gender stereotypes may affect women's attitudes toward their own bodies and health. 

And here is the perfect example. A woman I know very well went to the doctor recently.  She was in physical therapy, and as a result of some conversations with her therapist, she was interested in having some imaging done to try to isolate a root cause of her injury.  The doctor told her, "There is no root cause.  You're a woman.  You're designed to push out babies.  You're going to have hip pain from time to time.  Your ligaments are overly stretchy because you need to get a baby through the small birth canal."  Now, the woman in question does NOT have stretchy ligaments (in fact, she's extremely tight), and seeing as to how she is not and has never been pregnant, she could not push out a baby right now if her life depended on it.  The doctor was apparently unaware that pregnancy hormones are responsible for all the increased elasticity at the time of childbirth.  He thought women are just like that all the time.  So he refused to help this woman.

This example illustrates the way in which "women's health issues," while commonly perceived to be a function of the female body itself, are often generated by social/political factors like institutionalized gender stereotypes and the false assumptions of medical practitioners.  People are all caught up with breasts and whatever else constitutes "women's health," but I would think the fact that a woman can be denied diagnostic imaging simply due to the fact that she is a woman - that is a real women's health issue, and one that no one is likely to talk about.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Book Review: The New Jim Crow

By Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow has been creating a bit of a buzz. The importance of this book is its claim that America’s racial caste system still exists:  the prison is the new plantation. Alexander makes the startling claim that there are more African Americans in prison today than there were enslaved in 1850. With all the attention given to America’s supposed racial progress (part of the larger Ideology of Progress, which is used to trumpet Western cultural/moral superiority), Alexander provides a sobering and much needed wake-up call to the contentedly oblivious citizens of the United States. Her challenge to prevailing ideas about racial equality is indispensible. Although she is obviously not the first person to question the true extent of racial equity in the United States, by framing current conditions as a “racial caste system” she is able to highlight structural continuities throughout U.S. history and carefully consider the difficulties presented to those who desire real systemic transformation.

To bolster her argument that the War on Drugs and the prison-industrial complex work together to sustain America’s racial caste system, Alexander describes the many critical points in the criminal justice process at which discriminatory practices are both legal and institutionalized. To start, Alexander notes that rates of drug use and sale are fairly identical across all racial/ethnic lines. In other words, African Americans do not use or sell drugs with any greater frequency than white Americans do. Yet, the War on Drugs is waged predominately in African American communities and random searches are largely targeted at people of color. Large-scale transfers of military equipment for use in drug law enforcement has increased violence and further diminished the security of “ghetto” neighborhoods. After their arrest, African Americans are subject to racial bias in the criminal justice system: prosecutors seek harsher sentencing for black defendants and are more likely to bring their cases to trial. Minimum sentencing laws ensure that minor infractions (possession of small amounts of marijuana, for example) result in years behind bars. Furthermore, these sentencing measures focus on drugs that are associated with people of color (e.g. possession of crack, a “black drug,” will land you many more years in prison than cocaine, a “rich, white person drug.”) Finally, once prisoners are released, additional punishments (such as excessive fees, ineligibility for welfare and public housing, and the loss of one’s right to vote) impact the lives of poor, urban dwellers more severely than those who have greater personal and familial financial security. The result of all of the above policies and practices is that, despite equality in drug use and sale, a very significant percentage of African American men (in Washington, D.C. for example it is around 75%) are at some point arrested and thus for the rest of their lives face all of the discrimination that was institutionalized in the Jim Crow era (hence “The New Jim Crow”).

Michelle Alexander’s broader arguments about reform and social transformation echo a number of key points that I have already discussed in this blog. 1) Policies like affirmative action and the presence of “token” minorities in the upper echelons of society, to the extent that they obscure the reality of on-going systemic oppression, may cause more harm than good. 2) Reformism is doomed to failure because it divides people’s energies and attentions and fails to confront the root causes of inequality. 3) We are not a post-racial society; our progress is, on the whole, illusory (in Alexander’s words “cosmetic”). To the third point, one need only look at the comment threads.... well.... anywhere on the internet, to see evidence of overt racism.

However, Alexander could have taken her argument even further. Yes, affirmative action is diverting attention and resources away from real systemic change. But is the War on Drugs really the root of the racial caste system? Slavery and Jim Crow were both confronted head on, but that did not stop the caste system from continuing unabated. That is because the root of racial caste is not any particular policy or institution, but rather the system itself. That is, capitalism. Alexander comes close to openly invoking capitalism as the cause of racial hostility, but always censors herself before going too far. Probably this is because she is trying to appeal to a “mainstream” audience and does want to sound too radical. Nonetheless, that is where the real battle is. That is where all of our energy and resources must be directed. If we want real change, we must confront capitalism. We need to educate the public, infiltrate the media, spread an awareness of the reality of capitalism in order to dampen the power of the propaganda currently dominating public discourse.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Is Julian Assange a Hero?

I have felt very conflicted about Julian Assange.  On the one hand, I appreciate the attempt of Wikileaks to bring public awareness to what the U.S. and other powerful interests are really doing around the world.  On the other hand, I would like to maintain consistency with my principle that allegations of sexual assault should never be dismissed.  In this respect, why should Julian Assange be treated any differently than Dominique Strauss-Kahn?

Then today I came across this commentary.  Couldn't have said it better myself.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Empowerment: Racist Rhetoric

I have already talked about the Western obsession with “empowering” women in other parts of the world (see here and here). Today I ran across this article detailing yet another statement to this effect: “this White House paper sums up by saying that 'across all [these] objectives, we will: deepen our engagement with Africa's young leaders; seek to empower marginalized populations and women...'”

I don’t really have anything new to say. I just felt my point was worth emphasizing. The discourse about empowering women and “marginalized populations” in other countries is a means of: 1) Asserting Western moral and cultural superiority (a sneaky form of racism); 2) Reinforcing the narrative of Progress; 3) Obfuscating domestic inequalities; and 4) Providing justification for various sorts of intervention (neocolonialism).

Most tellingly, this rhetoric is premissed on the assumption that it is Western powers that must do the empowering, while women and subalterns are passive recipients of empowerment, unable to act on their own accord.

It feels so good to be the Savior.