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Why the case of Jahi McMath is important for understanding the role of race for black patients

Yolonda Wilson, Howard University

California teenager Jahi McMath, who suffered catastrophic brain injury as a result of a routine tonsil surgery, died on June 22, 2018.

Her death came after four years of her family fighting in court to continue her care in California. Eventually, they moved her to a facility in New Jersey, a state that accommodates religious views that don’t recognize brain death.

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A photo of Jahi McMath shown at her funeral service at Acts Full Gospel Church in Oakland, Calif. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Much of the popular discussion in the case centered on the family’s refusal to accept the diagnosis of brain death. However, as a philosopher who writes on bioethics and race, I believe an underappreciated aspect of the discussion was the role of race – both in how the medical personnel dealt with the family and how the family interpreted their interactions with the medical establishment.

The surgery and outcome

On Dec. 9, 2013, the 13-year-old McMath entered Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland, California, for what should have been a routine tonsillectomy. The young girl was, according to her mother’s account, frightened that something would go wrong. Her mother reassured McMath that she would be okay.

McMath’s post-surgical complications began about an hour after her surgery. A nurse provided a bin to catch the blood that McMath had begun spitting up. Although the nurses indicated to the family that some post-surgical bleeding was normal, two hours later, McMath’s blood filled two plastic bins and the bandages packing her nose were saturated with blood. Her hospital gown was also covered in blood.

According to the family, four and a half hours passed before a physician saw her, despite the family’s repeated pleas for intervention. The hospital has maintained that they can not discuss Jahi’s case in detail because of privacy laws. Bleeding complications, though rare, can occur after tonsillectomy because tonsils are near arteries.

As a result of the immense blood loss, McMath’s heart stopped and her brain was deprived of oxygen. Three days later, on Dec. 12, 2013, the medical staff at Children’s Hospital declared McMath brain dead. Hospital personnel encouraged the family to withdraw life support and donate her organs.

McMath’s family refused to accept the diagnosis, and a court battle to keep McMath on life support ensued.

A judge in California initially ruled that McMath could remain on life support until Jan. 7, 2014. However, the Alameda County coroner issued a death certificate anyway.

A 2015 photo of Jahi McMath is shown on a video screen next to her uncle Timothy Whisenton. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File

Philosopher Jeffrey P. Bishop, who holds the chair of health care ethics at Saint Louis University, writing in Harvard Divinity School bulletin noted the ethical oddities of the case. In California, once two physicians confirm brain death, the patient is legally dead. The body is then technically released to the coroner before being released to the family so that they can make arrangements. In the case of McMath, she was still in the hospital and on a ventilator when these procedures kicked in.

From the beginning, the case was tangled up with all sorts of questions regarding the nature and diagnosis of brain death. Although there are long-established criteria, how brain death is determined in practice can vary. These differences in practices can contribute to confusion, particularly among the lay public, about brain death.

Her family rejected the brain death diagnosis alleging the hospital had a conflict of interest and simply wanted McMath’s organs.

Revisiting a history of medical racism

Rather than dismiss the family’s concerns as paranoid or ignorant, it is important to understand the historical realities faced by black patients in their encounters with the U.S. medical system.

There is a long historical record of using African-Americans for medical experimentation. For example, medical experimentation performed by J. Marion Sims, “the father of modern gynecology,” highlights the medical establishment’s disregard for black people.

Sims, who began conducting his gynecological experiments in the 1840s, is credited with developing a surgical procedure to repair vesicovaginal fistula, a hole that develops between the vaginal wall and the bladder, resulting in incontinence. However, Sims achieved his success by experimenting on enslaved women, often without anesthesia.

Sims wasn’t the only one. During the 19th century, medical schools used both enslaved and free black people, often without their consent, to teach their white medical students anatomy, disease progression and diagnosis. This practice continued after slavery.

Additionally, the graves of African-Americans were robbed and their bodies disinterred so that medical students could use black bodies as cadavers. Aware of these practices, African-American communities were deeply suspicious of local medical schools and unsure whether the medical personnel were actually “treating” them or merely “experimenting” on them.

Few examples of the abuse of African-Americans in medical experimentation loom larger than the Tuskegee syphilis experiment – a 40-year-long study of disease progression of syphilis in 600 men in the Tuskegee, Alabama, area that began in 1932. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Public Health Service.

None of the 399 men who had syphilis were ever told of their diagnosis. Nor were these men or their partners treated with penicillin once penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis in 1945. In 1997, President Bill Clinton issued a formal apology on behalf of the U.S. government to the eight remaining survivors of the Tuskegee experiment.

President Bill Clinton apologizes to black men whose syphilis went untreated by government doctors. AP Photo/Doug Mills

One presidential apology, however, could not erase the sense of mistrust that many African-Americans feel toward health care institutions.

And the medical injustice continues: There are wide gaps in outcomes between whites and African-Americans in a variety of diseases. For example, the American Cancer Society reports that, of all the racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., African-Americans, are more likely to die from most cancers.

Lower quality of care?

African-Americans also report lower quality of health care and greater dissatisfaction with the care they receive. In addtion, they are significantly more likely to report experiencing racial discrimination and negative attitudes by health care personnel than non-Hispanic whites.

Medical mistrust and the resulting dissatisfaction have been connected to patient anxiety, as well as lower engagement in health care decision-making between patient and provider.

This mistrust makes African-Americans less likely to use the health care system. Along with other factors, such as limited insurance status and greater geographic distance from health care providers, it contributes to disparate health outcomes.

It is against this backdrop that one must understand the McMath family’s skepticism regarding both her treatment and diagnosis.

McMath’s mother, Nailah Winkfield, told The New Yorker,

“No one was listening to us, and I can’t prove it, but I really feel in my heart: if Jahi was a little white girl, I feel we would have gotten a little more help and attention.”

Nailah Winkfield, the mother of Jahi McMath, speaks next to husband Martin Winkfield during funeral services for Jahi. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Sadly, Winkfield is not alone in her suspicions.

The ConversationIt is possible that the ultimate outcome might still have been tragic. Even with the most attentive care, McMath might have died. However, the family feeling that the medical team did not do all that they could have done for their loved one, and that this, for them, was a function of race, needlessly inflicted additional injury.


Republished with permission under licence from The Conversation.


See our related page, "Medical Oppression"

St. Louis Arch A Symbol of “Negro Removal”?

On July 3, 2018, a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the renovated St. Louis Gateway Arch grounds was held. The history of the Arch is rooted in exclusion and racist policy. Black businesses were evicted to make room for the Arch and blacks were denied employment opportunities during the Arch construction. 53 years later, blacks were not represented in the ribbon cutting ceremony although the City of St. Louis has a majority black population.

 Officials and National Parks Service staff cut the ribbon to the new Gateway Arch visitor center and museum Tuesday.

The photo above is symbolic of how black people are constantly being removed for the benefit of others. The City of St. Louis removed blacks from the riverfront, sections of downtown including the Mill Creek Valley to build Pruitt Igoe.

Mill Creek Valley looking northwest towards Grand, St. Louis, MO.

The Mill Creek area was supposedly blighted, however, my father, who will be 90 later this year, told me many of the residents of Mill Creek were homeowners who took pride in their homes and kept them up. When I saw pictures of Mill Creek Valley, it looked very similar to the Soulard and Lafayette square neighborhoods.  

Mill Creek Valley family on moving Day

In 1959, demolition of the neighborhood began, displacing over 20,000 residents, 95% of whom were black. Keep in mind, during this time the federal government was still actively redlining and withholding funds to improve black neighborhoods. Of the $120 billion worth of new housing subsidized by the government between 1934 and 1962, less than 2 percent went to nonwhite families.

Former Mayor Raymond Tucker (at right) and then-civic leader and bond issue chairman Sidney Maestre look out over an area of Mill Creek Valley slated for clearance in 1956.

The Interstate highways wiped out many predominantly black neighborhoods and turned them into surface parking and highways or isolated them contributing to their failure. Even the Cookie Thornton shooting was related to black removal. Most recently, the false promises of Paul McKee and the NGA project resulted in the further displacement of black families and neighborhoods all under the guise of urban renewal. James Baldwin pointed out in a 1963 interview that, "urban renewal..means negro removal". 

People of African descent have played a large role in St. Louis since the city’s founding in 1764. Downtown St. Louis was a center of black cultural, economic, political, and legal achievements that have shaped not only the city but the nation as well. Early census figures show blacks, both free and slave, lived in St. Louis from its earliest days under French and Spanish colonial rule. By the 1820 census, 10,000 slaves lived in Missouri, about one-fifth of the state’s population, however only 347 "free colored persons" lived in Missouri. That same year, the Missouri Compromise admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state. Evidence of black life in downtown St. Louis has been erased from the City's landscape and memory. See: "African Americans in Downtown St. Louis". 

In 1935 St. Louis approved a bond issue for a project commemorating Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and to clear an area of empty, “blighted” warehouses. A study by the Post-Dispatch at the time of the 1935 vote found the riverfront wasn’t a derelict district that needed to be cleared. The paper found 290 active businesses and a 2% vacancy rate on 37 blocks that would become the Arch.

The St. Louis riverfront, looking northeast from the Old Courthouse in 1895. This area now contains the Gateway Arch. The buildings shown here were prized by many historic preservationists, who objected to the demolition of unique cast-iron structures

As Tony Messenger pointed out in his article, "Krewson's deputy mayor calls all-white Arch photo a 'symptom' of St. Louis' racial divide": In 1939, the city of St. Louis began clearing 486 buildings from the area near its riverfront. Most housed businesses owned and run by black St. Louisans. About 5,000 jobs were lost. 

Westward Expansion

Let's not forget the original motivation for the St. Louis Arch. It was built to honor St. Louis' role in westward expansion, a time when Manifest Destiny was used to push Native Americans and Mexicans out of their lands. It is estimated 10 million+ Native Americans were living on land that is now the United States when European explorers first arrived in the 15th century. It is estimated that over nine million Native Americans were killed after European settlers arrived.

As the United States expanded westward, violent conflicts over territory multiplied. In 1784, one British traveler noted:

“White Americans have the most rancorous antipathy to the whole race of Indians; and nothing is more common than to hear them talk of extirpating them totally from the face of the earth, men, women, and children.”

After the American Revolution, many Native American lives were already lost to disease and displacement. In 1830, the federal Indian Removal Act called for the removal of the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’ – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. 

Between 1830 and 1838, federal officials working on behalf of white cotton growers forced nearly 100,000 Indians out of their homeland. The dangerous journey from the southern states to “Indian Territory” in current Oklahoma is referred to as the Trail of Tears. By 1837, 46,000 Native Americans had been removed from their homelands, thereby opening 25 million acres for predominantly European settlement.

Ferguson should have acted as a wake-up call to the entire St. Louis region. This year will mark the fourth anniversary of Michael Brown's death, but the City of St. Louis and the greater St. Louis region are either in denial or indifferent about its exclusionary institutionalized racist and oppressive nature. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. aptly stated, “a riot is the language of the unheard".

Considering the history of what the St. Louis Arch commemorates and the history of its construction, the lack of diversity in the ribbon cutting symbolized St. Louis' culture of racism. It's time to start listening to the unheard!

When some police feel misunderstood, it can impact their performance

Shefali V. Patil, University of Texas at Austin

Amid a string of fatal police shootings of unarmed black citizens, the Pew Research Center ran a massive study in 2017 of 8,000 U.S. police officers asking them about their experiences.

It revealed something startling: 86 percent of officers believe the public does not understand the risks and challenges of their jobs, even though 83 percent of U.S. adults rated officers’ jobs as very risky.

A police officer once told me in an interview: “I think police officers are misunderstood, what we do, why we do things. All the public sees are 30-second cell phone camera videos from a biased individual.”

Another said, “There’s this automatic generalization of an officer being there just because of the color of their skin or the uniform they’re wearing.”

These officers, who I won’t name to protect their confidentiality, are not alone.

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Antwon Rose Jr. was fatally shot by a police officer in East Pittsburgh. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Dealing with people who do not understand your work and have unrealistic expectations can be frustrating. For example, a previous study found that serving difficult people can cause stress, burnout and lower performance among lawyers, accountants, architects and registered nurses.

As an organizational psychologist, I set out to study if police who feel misunderstood also perform worse on the job.

After all, there are many ways in which officers feel misunderstood. Some feel that the public doesn’t understand how difficult it is to make quick decisions when lives are on the line, deal with social ills like drug addiction and poverty, and witness tragedy and loss on a daily basis. With so much at stake, they only have to get it wrong once – something officers think the public does not fully appreciate.

The studies

To answer this question, I conducted two studies across six U.S. police agencies. First, I asked patrol officers to rate the public’s understanding of the difficulties of their jobs and the dilemmas they confront on a daily basis.

I also asked officers about their beliefs about how society should deal with crime. Some officers supported softer policies that emphasize rehabilitation and community outreach. Others supported harder policies that emphasize “get tough” punishment to set an example for others.

Then, I collected about 800 body camera footage videos of 164 officers. The videos captured everyday policing duties such as traffic stops, arrests and house calls. I recruited experts – retired division commanders and current supervisors – to rate officer behaviors in the videos. For example, they rated the degree to which officers “performed their on-scene functional duties in a competent manner.”

Ideology matters

Dallas Police Department Chief Joseph Hannigan bows his head at a ceremony to remember five law enforcement officers killed in a sniper attack in downtown Dallas on July 7, 2016. AP Photo/Jaime Dunaway

Surprisingly, not all officers who thought the public misunderstood their jobs received poor performance ratings. Some actually had high performance ratings.

In fact, I found that only the police officers who indicated a softer stance toward crime were rated poorly. Their bodycam videos revealed that they hesitated or acted too quickly, violating basic safety protocols.

By contrast, the performance ratings of officers who believe in harder approaches to fighting crime remained high.

I found this was the case regardless of the raters’ personal beliefs about crime.

Why did officers who support softer approaches to crime receive poorer ratings?

It is likely that they are more frustrated than their peers by perceptions that the public does not appreciate their jobs. They are trying to build closer relations with the public, and their efforts are being met with criticism and a lack of appreciation.

This frustration and uncertainty about how the public will react may be leading to lower performance. For example, when asked how public misunderstanding affects him during an interview, an officer stated: “It makes not only me, but I see it in a lot of these guys, they don’t want to be proactive. Officers pause, and there’s going to be times where it’s going to be a safety issue.”

On the other hand, officers who believe in hard-line approaches do not expect the public to understand their jobs. From their perspective, officers are given authority over the public because they have knowledge and expertise that are only understandable to them. They are the ones who wear the uniform.

Because of this lower frustration, these officers may be performing better. For example, another cop told me: “Public misunderstanding don’t really change anything. I know what I was trained to do. Whether you’re happy to have me there or not, I’m still going in there. I have a job to do.”

Coping with misunderstanding

These studies suggest two things.

First, community safety suffers when some officers believe that the public does not understand the physical and emotional difficulties they face on the job. While it is generally known that there is tension between officers and the public, my studies demonstrate the dangers of this tension.

Second, because public misunderstanding can reduce the effectiveness of some officers, it is important to explore ways to help all cops – regardless of their different approaches to crime – be effective despite today’s environment. For example, some of my current research suggests that officers who feel misunderstood, but also feel that they have little autonomy and discretion in making decisions, actually perform better than those who feel they have a lot of freedom.

The ConversationGiven the impact that officers can have on human life, helping police officers cope with public tension should be a priority.


Re-published with permission under license from The Conversation

Shefali V. Patil, Assistant Professor of Management, University of Texas at Austin

Janus decision extends First Amendment ‘right of silence’

Robert A. Sedler, Wayne State University

Forty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state could require nonmembers of a public employee union to pay an “agency fee,” otherwise known as costs of collective bargaining, for their representation by the union.

The union could not use any part of the agency fee to advance ideological purposes unrelated to the union’s primary function of collective bargaining.

At that time, the court took the view that this requirement did not violate the First Amendment’s “right of silence” of nonunion members who didn’t want to pay the fee. The “right of silence” is the guarantee that people cannot be forced to be associated with an idea they do not believe.

On Tuesday, June 26, in Janus v. American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees, the court overruled that decision.

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Plaintiff Mark Janus, right, leaves the the Supreme Court Wednesday. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

The court held that when it came to public employee unions, all collective bargaining involved ideological and public policy considerations. For government workers, the court said, issues like salaries, pensions and benefits are inherently political. And some employees may not agree with the union’s position on those matters.

For example, if a teacher’s union sought higher wages and benefits for its members, this might result in higher taxes for residents of the school district. And if that position was shared by certain union members, the union would be, effectively, putting words they didn’t believe in in their mouth. So the court said that compelling objecting employees to pay an agency fee violated their First Amendment right of silence.

Labor unions fought bitterly against Janus. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Although the court is reluctant to overrule prior decisions, the court majority, consisting of the four conservative justices plus Justice Kennedy, found that requiring objecting public employees to pay an agency fee was inconsistent with standard First Amendment principles.

Associate Justice Elena Kagan blasted the decision in her dissent, writing that “The First Amendment was meant for better things. It was meant not to undermine but to protect democratic governance — including over the role of public-sector unions.”

The majority also decided that agency fees were not justified by the union’s claim that they were necessary to avoid “free riders,” who would get the benefit of the union’s collective bargaining services without paying for them.

Indeed, said the court, the alleged “free riders” would be employees who were compelled to take a ride that they did not want. And above all, public employee unions did not need agency fees in order to effectively perform their role of representing the members of the bargaining unit.

The court noted that today public-sector union membership has surpassed union membership in the private sector. They said that public-sector unions effectively represent both federal employees without any agency fees and public employees in “right to work” states, where agency fees are prohibited.

The result in Janus extends strong protection to the First Amendment right of silence. It continues a trend over the last decade by which the court, sometimes divided and sometimes not, has expanded First Amendment rights, often at the behest of ideological conservatives.

The ConversationIn the United States, we give more constitutional protection to First Amendment rights than is provided by other democratic nations and international human rights norms. Janus is another example of this protection.


Re-published with permission under license from The Conversation

Robert A. Sedler, Distinguished Professor of Law, Wayne State University

The long history of separating families in the US and how the trauma lingers

There are two ways to enter the United States, legally or illegally. Entering the country illegally is a crime. If I commit an illegal act, no matter how well intentioned my actions are, I will be subject to arrest. If I am arrested with small children, I would have no reasonable expectation of not being separated from my my children.

Yes, many laws are unfair. Black people in the U.S. have been subject to walking and driving while black, and other while black actions have been criminalized including most recently, barbecuing and StarBucking while black. It is almost universally recognized that when you are arrested, even if you're arrested unfairly, your children will be separated from you while under arrest.

The worst example of forced child separation occurs within our criminal justice system. Just as the forced removal of Indian children became illegal in the late '70s, the United States began an accelerated process of mass incarceration that quintupled the number of U.S. prisoners. 

Many people spend weeks, months and even years locked up while they await trial, half a million of the 2.3 million people behind bars are simply there because they are too poor to pay bail  (even though we know that money bail only marginally impacts court attendance). Many of these mostly nonviolent people end up losing their jobs, homes or custody of their children before they’ve even had a chance to plead their case in court. 


By Jessica Pryce, Florida State University

During the last few weeks, hundreds of families have been separated, following the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy towards illegal immigrants. Even though the separations have reportedly stopped, it is not clear when the families will be unified. There are also reports of children being possibly put in foster homes and at least one teenager missing, after walking out of a shelter.

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Immigrant children play inside the Catholic Charities RGV in Texas. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

This is not the first time that children have been separated. Exclusion and separation has impacted African-Americans during slavery, Native Americans during the Trail of Tears, and Japanese-Americans during internment, to name a few.

As a scholar who is actively engaged in child protection research and who examines the unnecessary removals of children from their parents, I am all too aware that the repercussions of such policies often take a lifetime to undo.

History of separating families

During the years of slavery, there was daily buying and selling of children from their enslaved parents. No legal restraints existed on slave owners, who chose to dispose of their property as they saw fit.

Another period of state-sanctioned separations was in the 1800s, after President Andrew Jackson authorized the Indian Removal Act. Native Americans, mostly youth, were forcibly taken out of their homes and communities and asked to walk for miles to a specially designated “Indian territory.” Thousands died on that journey. It has since been named the “Trail of Tears.”

The government, nonetheless went ahead with its policies and mandated that Native American children be educated apart from their families in boarding schools. This was a method of creating a distance between children and their Native American parents so that they would slowly let go of their native values – what scholars today describe as forced assimilation.

This practice went on until the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 when Native American parents were given the legal right to refuse boarding school education.

The internment of Japanese-Americans was also a time of enactment of exclusionary policies by the American government. President Roosevelt ordered that Japanese, many of them United States citizens, be forcibly removed and held in camps. Children, even infants, were placed in these camps with their parents, and sometimes without.

As is being done today, these separations were staunchly defended and rationalized, without much consideration of the negative and long-lasting trauma.

The long-term impact

Recent research on the impact of family separation during slavery focuses on the trauma that has been passed down over the years.

Scholar Joy DeGruy, in her seminal book “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” describes the impact of that history on black families today.

It is “common sense,” adds DeGruy, who has spent many years researching the multigenerational trauma, that hundreds of people who endured slavery would continue to pass on behaviors, such as anger, violence and shame, down to contemporary generations.

Scholars have also researched the impact of American Indian boarding schools. Their findings included reports of abuse in boarding school and how that manifested in their later years. As children, they were found to have high levels of depression. Research has also linked the adverse childhood experience of boarding school with difficulty in managing stress as adults.

Within the foster care system, scholars have long researched the harm in multiple placements, meaning moving children from one foster care placement to another. Children who experience such unstable placement experience, after being separated from their families, suffer from profound distress and a loss of belonging.

The trauma of separation leaves deep physical and psychological impact that carries into adulthood. This essentially means the healthy development of a child is disrupted in many ways.

Separation of families in 2018

The consequences of adverse childhood experiences can be minimized if a child is in a loving and nurturing environment where they feel safe and are able to acquire appropriate ways to cope.

The ConversationThese past comparisons bring us to what is occurring today. President Trump’s executive order has stopped any additional separations, but it does not undo the damage that has already been set in motion.


Re-published with permission under license from The Conversation

Jessica Pryce, Executive Director, The Florida Institute for Child Welfare, Florida State University

Fathers forgotten when it comes to services to help them be good parents, new study finds

By Joyce Y. Lee, and Shawna J. Lee

Fathers have a significant impact on their children’s well-being – an impact that begins even before the child is born. In fact, studies have shown that fathers who are involved during pregnancy have healthier children.

During the early years of life, emotionally nourishing father-child relationships lay the foundation for lifelong health and well-being for children. Fathers who are involved during pregnancy also tend to stay involved over the long term. Indeed, the positive influence of father involvement can be felt throughout adolescence and young adulthood.

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Fathers want to be more involved but often feel sidelined, studies suggest. George Rudy/Shutterstock.com

Our research lab studies father-child relationships, and we recently looked at the question: What early parent education programs are out there to support fathers during the prenatal and postnatal periods? Our study, published on June 14 in the journal Pediatrics, suggested that there are not that many.

Not many father-friendly early parent education programs

Studies suggest that fathers want to be involved but may not know how to do so. Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Specifically, our systematic review examined U.S.-based parent programs for men during the perinatal period, i.e., pregnancy through the first year of life. We could identify only 19 programs (out of a total of 1,353 studies reviewed) that were considered “father-friendly.” Father-friendly was defined as involving or targeting fathers and including outcomes related to fathering, such as father involvement, father-infant interaction and father’s parenting knowledge.

Most programs were offered in clinic or hospital settings. Programs ranged from general education programs (on childbirth, infant care and infant development) to relationship and co-parenting programs to clinical and case management programs.

In addition to the small number of existing programs for fathers, most programs reviewed in the systematic review lacked evidence of improving key fathering outcomes. Relatedly, only three studies were considered high quality. These findings demonstrate the dearth of father-inclusive programs that yield promising outcomes.

Overall, when it comes to education and support during the perinatal period, research shows that there are few parenting programs to prepare men for the magic moment when they welcome their new baby, even though this time has been identified as a critical window of opportunity to intervene to support fathers during their transition to fatherhood.

Most existing programs are designed primarily for mothers. This is a missed opportunity, because fathers in the U.S. are increasingly involved in their children’s lives. And fathers today want to be involved not just as breadwinners, but also as caregivers who provide nurturing and responsive parenting.

Father-friendly practices by health care professionals

A father and newborn. Fathers have reported that they feel neglected in obstetric and pediatric settings. ESB Studios/Shutterstock

In obstetrics and pediatrics settings, fathers participating in research have reported feeling neglected. They are often viewed as playing a secondary role to mothers. This may entail the father seeing himself as a “helper” of the mother instead of a “co-parent” alongside the mother.

This neglect persists for several reasons. For instance, health care professionals may be unwilling or inadequately trained to work with fathers. Clinical services may not be sensitive to men’s parenting needs. Further, mothers might limit men from being engaged in prenatal and postnatal services.

Yet, men have a vital role to play during infancy. To help address the above barriers, Michael Yogman and Craig Garfield, pediatric faculty at the Harvard Medical School and Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine respectively, recommended that health care professionals engage in father-friendly practices. These include acknowledging fathers’ presence at health care visits, welcoming fathers directly, educating fathers about parenting, and encouraging fathers to assume childcare roles early on.

Innovative early parent education programs for fathers

Although there aren’t many yet, innovative parent education programs targeting men during the perinatal period are emerging. One example is Dads Matter, a father-friendly home visitation program that may improve fathers’ engagement with their babies among socioeconomically disadvantaged families.

Another emerging program is Baby Elmo. This is an interactive program that helps fathers understand their babies’ emotional needs to support positive father–child interactions. Baby Elmo is currently being tested for its effectiveness within low-income communities.

Our research lab is implementing a father engagement program for low-income fathers, in collaboration with Healthy Start home visitation programs in Michigan.

Yet another promising program is Supporting Father Involvement by Philip Cowan, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Supporting Father Involvement is a group-based relationship program that has been successful in promoting father involvement with young children.

On the whole, these programs help ensure that American children – especially those at the highest risk of living apart from their fathers – grow up in households where their fathers or father figures are positively involved from the very beginning.

Fathers play a key role in children’s lives, starting from the very beginning of life. Their involvement in pregnancy is just as important as the involvement of mothers. We celebrate mothers on Mother’s Day and offer multiple programs and resources for helping women navigate motherhood.

The ConversationWe also celebrate our fathers on Father’s Day. However, we leave them with almost no resources for navigating the transition to fatherhood. This disparity in services is inevitably hurting not only fathers, but also their children. It’s time to change this narrative.


Re-published with permission under license from The Conversation

Joyce Y. Lee, PhD Student in Social Work and Psychology, University of Michigan and Shawna J. Lee, Associate Professor, Social Work, University of Michigan


St. Louis Footnote:

The Father Support Center of St. Louis provides comprehensive programs and services to help fathers become better parents in order to improve their children’s futures.

They are located at 4411 N Newstead Ave. St. Louis, MO 63115.

If you or someone you know is in need of their services you can contact them at 314-333-4170 or thru their website http://fatherssupportcenter.org.

 

Why black women’s experiences of #MeToo are different

By Yolonda Wilson

In April, a 25-year-old black woman named Chikesia Clemons was violently arrested by police at a Waffle House restaurant in Alabama.

A video of the arrest that went viral shows police pulling Clemons from her chair and throwing her to the floor. In the process, her breasts are exposed and her dress rides up in the back. When she attempts to cover her breasts, the two officers on top of her threaten to break her arm for “resisting.”

Clemons’ experience is not unique. In the U.S., black women are not afforded the same regard for bodily privacy as white women.

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Actress Nicolle Rochelle, who appeared on several episodes of ‘The Cosby Show.’ AP Photo/Corey Perrine, File

Another example: In an investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department, the Department of Justice found that the Baltimore Police Department frequently engaged in unjustified strip searches of African-Americans. In one instance, Baltimore police conducted a strip search of a black woman, including an anal cavity search, on a sidewalk in broad daylight and in full public view. The woman’s pleas to not be forced to disrobe in public were ignored. Her offense? A broken headlight.

While the #MeToo movement has been successful in bringing down several high-profile assailants, critics continue to argue that it has been monopolized by middle- and upper-class white women, particularly white Hollywood actresses. This, despite the fact that a black woman, Tarana Burke, created the Me Too campaign more than a decade ago. These criticisms reflect the fact that black women have experienced sexual violence differently than white women.

As a philosopher of race and gender who has written about sexual harassment, I offer historical context on the ways that black women experience sexual abuse, often by the authority of the state, as a way to think about black women’s contemporary experiences as the kinds of experiences that #MeToo should address.

History of black women’s bodies on display

As early as the 17th century, European men wrote travel narratives about their trips to West Africa to capture, enslave and trade African people. Their writings offer a window into how they perceived African women and what they thought primarily European male readers would find titillating.

In particular, their descriptions of West African women’s style of dance played a role in shaping European perceptions of black women’s sexual immorality and availability.

These travel accounts were the popular media of their day and offered some of the first reports of continental Africa to average Europeans. For example, Frenchman Jean Barbot wrote of African men and women “knocking bellies together very indecently” while “uttering some dirty mysterious words.” Meanwhile, naval officer Abraham Duqesne characterized African women as desiring the “caresses of white men.”

Because African women differed from European women both in attire and bodily movement, European travel writers regarded African women as sexually available and immoral. European settlers carried these attitudes to the United States where enslaved black women were subjected to violent sexual abuse and forced nudity as routine social practice, in ways that would have been unthinkable toward white women.

Sexual violence and the father of gynecology

A statue of J. Marion Sims. ‘The Father of Modern Gynecology’ stands on the Capitol grounds in Montgomery, Ala., Jan. 25, 2006. AP Photo/Rob Carr

By the 19th century, treating black and white women differently was firmly entrenched in society. Nowhere was this more evident than in the practice of J. Marion Sims, the physician widely regarded by gynecologists as the “father of modern gynecology.” The convention of the period was for physicians to conduct gynecological examinations of white women with averted gazes while the patients remained as clothed as possible.

However, Sims also conducted medical experiments on enslaved black women that ultimately resulted in a technique to repair vesicovaginal fistula, an opening that can develop between the vaginal wall and the bladder or large intestine, sometimes as a result of childbirth. The enslaved black women were stripped completely naked and examined on all fours, as Sims and other physicians took turns using a specially created speculum that enabled full viewing of the vagina. Private citizens were also allowed to watch these experiments and they, too, were invited to witness the full exposure of enslaved women’s vaginas.

Sims conducted his experiments without anesthesia, despite the fact that ether was known and in use by the time he performed later surgeries. Black women were denied anesthesia on the grounds that black people did not feel pain in the same ways that white people felt pain, a perception that still exists today. For example, one study found that when people viewed images of blacks receiving painful stimuli, like needle pricks, they responded with less empathy than when they viewed similar images of white people in pain.

Sexual violence in a court of law

In New York in 1925, another historical example shows how black women’s exposed bodies have been treated with indifference. Kip Rhinelander, a member of New York’s high society, was set to wed Alice Beatrice Jones, a working-class biracial woman. Their union drew national attention.

Although New York did not legally prohibit interracial marriage as other states did at that time, society strongly disapproved of interracial marriage.

Once their marriage was made public, Kip filed for divorce on the grounds of fraud. The salient question in the divorce hearing was whether Kip knew that Alice was black at the time of their marriage.

In order to answer that question, Alice’s attorney suggested that Alice bare her breasts in front of the all-white male jury, judge and attorneys in order to prove her racial identity. By viewing the shading of her areolas and legs, he said, the jurors could assess whether Kip – who had admitted to premarital sex with her – should have known her racial identity.

The judge directed Alice to follow through. Neither Alice Rhinelander’s tears nor her connection to a prominent white family could save her from the indignity of forced nudity in front of strangers. Ultimately, the jury decided that Alice was, in fact, “of colored blood” and that she did not conceal or misrepresent her racial identity.

The past is present

The hostility to black women’s bodily privacy and dignity in these examples isn’t accidental. Rather, it is part of the history of how black women have been cast in U.S. society.

In the Sims and Rhinelander examples, the legal status of enslavement and weight of the court validated the coercive display of black women’s bodies. The Department of Justice found that the Baltimore police used the weight of their badges to force compliance with public strip searches. Likewise, in the Waffle House example, although Clemons’ initial exposure may not have been intentional, the police responded to her cries and her attempts to cover herself by using their authority to threaten her with further harm.

This is a unique form of sexual violence experienced by black women. The convergence of race and gender in black women’s lives has created the social conditions in which black women are coerced and often expected, under threat of punishment by the government, to suffer the exposure of intimate body parts.

The ConversationRace and gender converge in black women’s lives and have created the social conditions under which black women are coerced and expected to suffer the exposure of intimate body parts, or else face punishment. If movements like #MeToo are serious about combating sexual violence, then they have to also understand these practices as sexual violence.


Re-published with permission under license from The Conversation

Yolonda Wilson, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Howard University

Too Broke For Bankruptcy

When You Can’t Afford to Go Bankrupt

There’s ample evidence many people don’t file for bankruptcy simply because they can’t pay an attorney. It’s a fixable problem.

by Paul Kiel

Trina Wright, who filed for bankruptcy in November 2016, outside her apartment in Whitehaven, a neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee. (Andrea Morales for ProPublica)

A ritual of spring in America is just ended. Tens of thousands of people got their tax refunds, and when they did, they were finally be able to afford the thing they’ve thought about for months, if not years: bankruptcy.

It happens every tax season. With many more people suddenly able to pay a lawyer, the number of bankruptcy filings jumps way up in March, stays high in April, then declines.

For the past year, I’ve traveled the country trying to understand why bankruptcy often fails those it’s supposed to help. I analyzed millions of filings and interviewed dozens of judges, lawyers and people struggling with debt. The answer turns out to be simple: People are too broke to go bankrupt. Filing costs money, as does hiring an attorney, which is the best way to make sure you actually get debt relief.

“It’s kind of a worthless solution if you can’t pay because you don’t have money,” said one man who lives in a trailer park in a small town outside Indianapolis. “It’s a sad realization that the legal system isn’t there for us.”

Scores of people considering bankruptcy told me the same thing again and again: If they had $1,000 to pay an attorney, then they probably wouldn’t need to file in the first place. “It’s funny how you buy bankruptcy,” marveled Trina Wright of Memphis.

People who hire lawyers to help them file under Chapter 7 have their debts wiped away almost without fail, national filing data shows. And debtors with attorneys fare far better than those who go it alone, filing pro se. Studies show clear benefits for those who successfully wipe out their debts, from higher credit scores to higher incomes. Moreover, this sort of targeted relief can help buoy the broader economy.

Those who can’t afford attorneys often turn to bad options with predictably bad outcomes. Some try to wrangle the complicated bankruptcy forms on their own, risking costly mistakes. Others are lured by unregulated “petition preparers” who promise bankruptcy on the cheap. In Los Angeles, I found a whole industry of petition preparers who often flout bankruptcy laws because of a lack of enforcement.

“If we had adequate access to our legal system,” a judge there told me, vulnerable people with debt “would not be this wonderful ripe field for picking by the fraud artists.”

In the South, debtors often avoid the up-front costs by filing bankruptcy under Chapter 13. Unlike Chapter 7, which clears debts after a few months, Chapter 13 is a payment plan that usually lasts five years. Lawyers in the South will often start a Chapter 13 for $0 down, allowing their much larger fees (usually $3,000 to $4,000) to be paid through the plan. This provides immediate protection to low-income debtors, but most are unable to keep up with the payments. Once their cases are dismissed, their debts return.

Faced with options like these, many people simply try to muddle through, often under the threat of having their wages seized by creditors.

Over the past decade, the number of consumer bankruptcies filed each year has ranged from about 800,000 to 1.5 million. That’s a small share of the millions of financially struggling households, and researchers have long argued that many more people would benefit from filing. And while the reasons someone may or may not file for bankruptcy can be complex, it’s clear that an important ingredient is affordability.

So if attorney fees can determine whether, and how, someone declares bankruptcy, can anything be done about them? The good news, I found, is that the answer is yes. The bad news is that none of the fixes are easy.

In a Chapter 7 case, attorney fees, like any other debt, are wiped out. As a result, most bankruptcy lawyers require that clients pay in full before filing. There’s ample evidence that people struggle to gather the money to do this. It’s what you’d expect in a country where nearly half of adults say that if they were hit with an emergency expense of $400, they wouldn’t have the cash on hand to cover it. Black Americans are particularly likely to have low savings, resulting in a variety of bad outcomes such as being unable to save up to file for bankruptcy.

A 2005 bankruptcy bill made the problem worse. In the name of preventing people from cheating their lenders, the bill heaped new requirements on debtors and their lawyers. The scope of such abuses was questionable, but the burdens of the new requirements drove up attorney fees nationwide by about 50 percent. The average attorney fee for a Chapter 7 today tops $1,100, with court fees adding $335 more. The result? Fewer filings, especially by low-income people.

The cleanest solution would be to change the law to allow more flexibility in how debtors pay their lawyers for Chapter 7 cases.

Crafting “a mechanism where people could pay their attorney fees over time would make Chapter 7 more accessible,” said Judge Elizabeth Perris, who retired in 2015 after serving as a bankruptcy judge in Oregon for over 30 years. Perris co-chairs The American Bankruptcy Institute Commission on Consumer Bankruptcy, a panel of experts working on potential improvements to the system to be released later this year.

Perris said the panel will likely make a specific proposal about attorney fees, but whether Congress will take action is less certain. “We’re not naïve,” said Perris. “We understand it might be difficult to get legislative changes through.”

The idea has at least one influential backer in Congress. When I asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a bankruptcy scholar herself, about it, she responded, “There’s a lot for a family to consider when making the painful decision of whether, when, and how to file for bankruptcy. Whether they can pay their lawyer in installments should not be one of them.”

In the interim, there are some lawyers who try workarounds: One of the oldest is for clients to hand over a stack of postdated checks before filing. After the case is filed, these checks are deposited over several months, resulting in a jerry-rigged installment plan. Most judges have decided that arrangement violates the law, but not all.

In a 2015 opinion approving the use of postdated checks, Chief Judge C. Ray Mullins of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Georgia wrote, “To deprive struggling debtors of willing counsel in such a time of need is markedly opposite of the intentions of the Bankruptcy Code.”

In the Southern District of Alabama, the chief bankruptcy judge, Henry Callaway, is working on a different fix. Troubled by the fact that more than 70 percent of bankruptcies in the district are under Chapter 13, he’s drafting a rule that would allow lawyers to break their fees into two parts for a Chapter 7 filing instead. The first would cover services rendered before the bankruptcy petition is filed; the second, services afterward. Because the second agreement is signed after the petition, it has a different legal status and isn’t wiped out like other debts. Unlike in a Chapter 13 case, where debt relief is conditioned on completing a payment plan, this would give clients relief and then allow payments to lawyers over time.  

With a rule, he hopes, local attorneys will be more willing to try something different. “Lawyers are not going to do something unless they’re sure they’re not going to get in trouble for it,” he said.

It is, to be sure, a convoluted arrangement. But some judges consider it legal, including a federal appellate court and bankruptcy judges in Florida and Michigan. Its growing popularity has already spawned a cottage industry to facilitate payments.

BK Billing launched in 2016 to manage the two-part agreements for lawyers, usually with clients paying $0 up front. The company helps attorneys craft what they say are legally defensible client agreements and processes the payments.

So far, the company has worked with a “few hundred” attorneys in more than 40 states, said David Stidham, the CEO. But because few judges have decided whether such arrangements are legal, there is wide uncertainty about the BK Billing model. “It’s so wild west right now,” he said.

Sean Mawhinney, the company’s president, said he used the two-part Chapter 7 arrangement when he practiced as a bankruptcy attorney in Utah, where BK Billing is based. Offering Chapter 7 for $0 down made a huge difference for clients, he said, especially those who were having their wages garnished.

“If they can stop the bleeding and get their case filed quickly, then they can make a reasonable payment to the attorney,” he said.

But, of course, BK Billing is a business, and its services come with a cost that can cause problems of its own. To reduce the risk of clients defaulting, BK Billing pays attorneys up front and charges a 25 percent fee. So, if an attorney normally charges $1,000, BK Billing will pay the attorney $750 and then collect $1,000 from the debtor over the following year.

To account for the fee, attorneys are then tempted to charge more. But Stidham said attorneys must be “willing to take a discount.” Attorneys told me, however, that it was hard to resist boosting their fee.

Late last year, the U.S. Trustee for the Central District of California filed a complaint against a local firm for, among other alleged violations, doubling its fees after moving to BK Billing’s model. The U.S. Trustee, the arm of the Justice Department that oversees the bankruptcy system, called the fees unconscionable and is seeking fines against the firm, which argues that its fees are reasonable for the extra services it provides.

Compared with these complicated maneuvers, another solution to the problem of attorney fees seems blessedly simple: Make legal help with bankruptcies free. But civil legal aid organizations, which are the main source of this kind of assistance, are also financially strapped.

“We don’t have enough resources to provide bankruptcy services in all of our counties,” said Steven McGarrity, executive director of Community Legal Aid, which serves clients in central northeast Ohio.

This year, his group, along with legal-services organizations in 11 other states, will begin using a new tool called Upsolve to help more poor debtors file. Developed by a nonprofit in New York, Upsolve is a kind of TurboTax for bankruptcy, walking debtors through the process of gathering the necessary documentation and asking questions in plain language. The software populates the small stack of forms necessary to file, and then a lawyer reviews them. Cases are filed pro se, but if complications arise, the debtor can get help from the lawyer.

“It was a way for us to expand the volume of people we can help without a lot of resources on our end,” said McGarrity.

Perhaps in the future, free help will be available to all who need it. Or maybe Congress will rewrite the law to allow debtors to pay attorneys over time. In the meantime, people struggling with debt will keep on doing what they’ve always done: waiting and hoping for relief.


Re-published with permission under license from ProPublica

Black employees in the service industry pay an emotional tax at work

By Alicia Grandey

The arrests of two black men who were waiting for a friend at a Starbucks in Philadelphia have raised questions about how race determines how customers are treated.

But does race also affect how the employees are treated within the service industry?

Prior research shows that black workers in people-oriented occupations – health care, service and sales – are rated lower by customers and supervisors than are white workers, even when their performance is objectively the same. Because of this, black workers have a harder time obtaining competitive raises or promotions. But it is unclear why or what workers can do about it.

In the U.S. workforce, blacks are disproportionately represented in low-paying service jobs like cashiers, call center employees and food service workers compared to higher-status jobs. So this issue has serious implications for the financial and professional lives of a large segment of black workers.

Race impacts perception of performance

Friendliness is key to performing well in the service industry. My colleagues Lawrence Houston III, Derek R. Avery and I found that negative stereotypes about blacks – that they are unfriendly, hostile or rude – explain lower performance evaluations of black service providers compared to white service providers.

We found that in order for the performance of black service providers to be rated equivalent to whites, blacks had to amplify and fake positive emotions to override those negative racial stereotypes. In other words, to be seen as good as white employees, black employees need to perform more “emotional labor,” a concept introduced by sociologist Arlie Hochschild.

Perhaps just like the two men at Starbucks, black service employees are assumed to have hostile intentions unless they put in extra effort to put forth a smile and show they are not a threat.

Across three studies

We drew these conclusions from a series of studies we conducted over several years.

In our first study, we asked a representative sample of people for their impressions of an employee described as holding an emotional labor job, a hotel desk clerk. They saw a photo of either a black or white person with a neutral expression, but otherwise the same job qualifications. Regardless of the respondents’ own race, education or income, they saw the black employee as less friendly and more hostile than the white employee.

In the second study, people watched a video of either a black or a white sales clerk ringing up sales in a home goods shop. They saw the clerk acting either warm and friendly or just polite. In all videos the sales clerk was efficient and knowledgeable.

When viewers saw the employee performing less emotional labor – just being polite and efficient – the black employee was rated as less friendly and a worse performer than the white employee. In contrast, after watching the friendly condition, the viewers rated the black and white employees similarly.

In short, just being polite was not enough for the black employee; putting on a big smile was necessary to get the same performance ratings as the white employee.

Both of the above studies were experiments. In a third study, we surveyed actual service employees and their supervisors.

Again, we found that supervisors rated black grocery store clerks as worse performers than white clerks, which could not be explained by job experience or motivation. Yet, black clerks who reported amplifying and faking their positive emotions when interacting with customers – more emotional labor – saw the racial disparity in the performance evaluations disappear.

Notably, white clerks were rated highly regardless of the frequency of their emotional labor. For black clerks to be rated as highly as the white clerks, they had to more consistently exaggerate their smile in customer interactions.

High cost of ‘service with a smile’

All service employees must sometimes put on a fake smile when having an off day, and sometimes they might let the mask slip. Our research shows that white employees who do less emotional labor can still be viewed positively, but black employees are not given the benefit of the doubt. Black employees constantly “fake it to make it” in service jobs.

Being a black service provider requires routinely putting forth more emotional effort – a bigger smile, a more enthusiastic tone of voice, maintained across time and customers – to be evaluated similarly to a white co-worker. If a black employee gets tired of faking that smile, there is a resulting decline in performance evaluation. This also means fewer opportunities for promotions, raises and career advancement.

The ConversationThough putting on a smile might seem like a small price to pay to get ahead at work, research shows that keeping up a friendly façade is a path to job burnout, a state of complete exhaustion linked to a desire to quit and health issues. Recognizing this situation is a first step to improving conditions for black employees and customers alike.


Re-published with permission under license from The Conversation.

Alicia Grandey, Professor of Psychology, Pennsylvania State University

NFL tells players patriotism is more important than protest – here’s why that didn’t work during WWI

 By Chad Williams

The recent decision by the NFL regarding player protests and the national anthem has yet again exposed the fraught relationship between African-Americans and patriotism.

File 20180529 80629 1alqr11.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The NFL is attempting to shut down protests like this one by members of the Cleveland Browns. AP Photo/David Richard

The controversy has taken place nearly a century after another time when African-Americans painfully grappled with questions concerning loyalty to the nation and the struggle for equal rights.

W.E.B. Du Bois. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In July 1918, at the height of American participation in World War I, W. E. B. Du Bois, the acclaimed black scholar, activist and civil rights leader, penned arguably the most controversial editorial of his career, “Close Ranks.”

“Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy,” he advised his fellow African-Americans. Du Bois acknowledged that this was “no ordinary sacrifice,” but black people would nevertheless make it “gladly and willingly with our eyes lifted to the hills.”

Pressured from league owners, white fans and the president of the United States, black NFL players are now faced with the dilemma of closing ranks and forgetting their “special grievances,” or continuing to protest against racial injustice.

The history of African-Americans in World War I, as I have explored in my work, offers important lessons about how to confront this challenge.

The NFL, race and the national anthem

Last season, during the playing of the national anthem, dozens of NFL players kneeled, locked arms and raised their fists in protest against police and state-sanctioned violence inflicted upon African-Americans. Their actions elicited a fierce backlash, much of it fueled by President Donald Trump, who encouraged his overwhelmingly white base of supporters to boycott the NFL so long as players, in his view, continued to disrespect the flag. Seeking to avoid further controversy, on May 23, Commissioner Roger Goddell announced that for the upcoming season, “All team and league personnel on the field shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.” Not following this directive could result in teams being fined and players subject to “appropriate discipline.”

Approximately 70 percent of the players in the NFL are African-American. They have also been the most visible faces of the national anthem protests, which began in 2016 with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is currently unemployed and suing owners for collusion to keep him out of the league.

I see the decision by the NFL as an unmistakable attempt to police the actions of its majority black work force, impose what amounts to a loyalty oath, and enforce through intimidation and threat a narrow definition of patriotism. The message is clear: Either demonstrate unqualified devotion to the United States or be punished.

African-Americans and World War I

African-Americans confronted the same stark choice during World War I.

In previous conflicts, African-Americans had sacrificed and shed blood for the nation. But patriotism alone has never been enough to overcome white supremacy. By 1917, as the United States prepared to enter the world war, disfranchisement, Jim Crow segregation, and racial violence had rendered African-Americans citizens in name only.

Black people thus had every reason to question the legitimacy of fighting in a war that President Woodrow Wilson declared would make the world “safe for democracy.” African-Americans immediately exposed the hypocrisy of Wilson’s words, while also seizing the opportunity to hold the United States accountable to its principles. They did this, in part, by serving in the army, as some 380,000 black soldiers labored and fought to not just win the war, but to also make democracy a reality for themselves.

African-Americans also recognized the importance of protest. Discrimination and racial violence continued throughout the war, highlighted by the East St. Louis massacre in July 1917, where white mobs killed as many as 200 black people. In response, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People organized a Silent Protest Parade in New York City, where more than 10,000 black men, women and children peacefully marched down Fifth Avenue carrying signs, one of which read, “Patriotism and loyalty presuppose protection and liberty.”

‘Closing ranks’ and the costs

Just as it does today, protesting racial injustice during the war carried risk. The federal government wielded the repressive power of American nationalism to crush disloyalty to the United States. The Espionage Act (1917) and Sedition Act (1918) severely curtailed civil liberties by criminalizing “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language.”

“100 percent Americanism” entailed the policing of immigrant communities, restricting freedom of the press, jailing anti-war activists, and monitoring African-Americans, including W. E. B. Du Bois, for potential radicalism. This pressure, along with the personal desire to demonstrate his loyalty to the nation, compelled Du Bois to soften his critiques of the government and issue his call for African-Americans to “close ranks.”

“The words were hardly out of my mouth when strong criticism was rained upon it,” Du Bois later remembered. Even during a time of war, most African-Americans refused to set aside the “special grievances” of segregation, lynching and systemic racial abuse. And Du Bois paid a heavy price. William Monroe Trotter, the fiery newspaper editor and civil rights leader from Boston, branded Du Bois “a rank quitter,” adding that his one-time ally had “weakened, compromised, deserted the fight.”

But African-Americans, having fought for democracy, would surely be rewarded for their loyal service and patriotic sacrifices, Du Bois reasoned.

To the contrary, they were greeted with a torrent of racial violence and bloodshed that came to be known as the “Red Summer” of 1919. White people, North and South, were determined to remind black people of their place in the nation’s racial hierarchy. Race riots erupted throughout the country and the number of African-Americans lynched skyrocketed, including several black veterans still in uniform.

The NFL’s decision is essentially an attempt to appease the mob in 2018.

Echoing the backlash following World War I, the vitriolic reactions to the national anthem protests reflect what happens when African-Americans physically and symbolically challenge an understanding of patriotism rooted in white supremacy and racist ideas of black subservience. I believe the NFL has acquiesced to the threats of President Trump and the unrest of its white fan base by establishing a policy that requires black players to remain docile, obedient employees, devoid of any outward expression of racial and political consciousness, which sole purpose is to entertain and enrich their owners.

And now, the NFL wants black players to “close ranks” by giving them the false choice between standing for the pledge or hiding their protest in the locker room, conveniently out of sight of fans in the stadium and away from television cameras.

The league ignores any mention of the “special grievances” of police brutality, racial profiling and antiblack harassment that remain alive and well. Ironically, the NFL has been the one to transform the flag into a political weapon to silence black activism, protect its corporate interests and maintain a racial status quo. Displays of patriotism and loyalty to nation are meaningless when not accompanied by the actual freedoms and protections that come with being a citizen.

W. E. B. Du Bois would spend the rest of his life questioning his decision for African Americans to “close ranks” during World War I. He ultimately recognized that until America reckoned with its racist history and embraced the humanity of black people, the nation would remain deeply wounded. At the age of 90, reflecting on the questions that shaped his decades of struggle, Du Bois pondered, “How far can love for my oppressed race accord with love for the oppressing country? And when these loyalties diverge, where shall my soul find refuge?”

The ConversationLike the battlefields of France 100 years ago, the football fields of NFL stadiums are just one place where African-Americans have historically sought to answer these questions. And simply closing ranks has never been sufficient. In this moment of racial repression and moral mendacity, when the ideals of democracy are undermined daily, the debate over national anthem protests reminds us that the fight to affirm the sanctity of black life is much longer and deeper than a Sunday afternoon game.


Re-published with permission under license from The Conversation

Chad Williams, Associate Professor of African and Afro-American Studies, Brandeis University