Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Shared humanity, shared responsibility: The Tribal Law and Order Act at 5

Professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, MN

On July 29, 2010, Native people (myself included) filled the East Room of the White House to see President Obama sign legislation that has become a game-changer for tribal nations in the United States. This legislation, the Tribal Law and Order Act, included changes in the law that many experts did not think were possible even a few years before. The 5th anniversary of the ceremonial signing today provides an opportunity to assess progress made since Obama signed it into law.

At the signing ceremony, Lisa Marie Iyotte, a Native woman from South Dakota, was selected to introduce the President of the United States. Lisa had survived a rape in a time when there were very few resources in place for responding to rape on the reservation. Her story was intended to demonstrate the need for the legislation that the President was about to sign. In a moving moment, Lisa had trouble finding her voice and became overwhelmed. President Obama then came to her side at the podium and provided emotional support for Lisa Marie so that she could tell her story.

Lisa courageously described some of the major barriers to finding justice for rape cases in Indian country. In her story, there was not a coordinated effort to respond to sexual assault. She had to wait all night in a hospital for someone to collect DNA. Her assailant was never brought to justice in her case (although he ultimately was convicted for raping an underage girl). Before she turned the microphone over to President Obama, she said that the Tribal Law and Order Act will help cases like hers from falling through the cracks.

President Obama then made a few remarks, and in doing so, uttered the words that many of us had waited to hear:

“When one in three Native American women will be raped in their lifetimes, that is an assault on our national conscience; it is an affront to our shared humanity; it is something that we cannot allow to continue.”

It was the first time in history that a sitting President had directly acknowledged the violence that Native women experience – and he committed to ending it through the implementation of the legislation he was about to sign.

In terms of changes, the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) had three main purposes. First, it was designed to make the federal government more accountable for serving the interests of justice on tribal lands. Second, it lifted some restrictions on tribal sentencing authority. And third, it put into place mechanisms to ensure greater collaboration and cooperation between tribal, state, and local officials.

So, five years later, where are we? In terms of accountability, the federal government now issues annual public reports that provide statistical data about the violence crime that comes to their attention. For too long, Native people had reported that federal officials declined to take cases seriously – but we had no definitive proof without the numbers. TLOA requires the federal government to disclose data about its performance responding to violent crime in Indian country. This is an important first step to developing concrete solutions. In this sense, transparency inspires accountability.

As far as the tribal sentencing restrictions go, TLOA made it possible for tribes, under certain circumstances, to sentence a convicted defendant to incarceration for up to nine years. Prior to TLOA, the maximum sentence could not exceed three years. For victims of crime, having some confidence that a perpetrator would be removed from her community will enhance her sense of safety and security. The challenge remaining is that many tribal governments do not have enough resources to put these enhanced sentencing laws into effect. In order to take advantage of the nine-year potential, tribes must provide public defenders and law-trained judges. The tribal laws have to be publicly available and all proceedings must be recorded. While many tribes already provide these important services, there are many tribes that simply cannot afford to implement these expensive changes. For those tribes, this section of TLOA remains out of reach.

Finally, TLOA set up a mechanism to encourage states, tribes, and the federal government to do a better job coordinating and collaborating on violent crimes. Whether it is cross-training – or cross-deputization – the goal is to provide a seamless system where victims feel that their case is taken seriously and that justice will be pursued.

Lisa Marie Iyotte’s words at the signing ceremony are a reminder that when a system fails to find justice, there are long-lasting ramifications for the victim and her family. TLOA’s 5th anniversary provides us with an opportunity to look back and look forward to a time when the high rate of violence against Native women will begin to decline.

For more information, the report A Roadmap for Making Native America Safer is highly recommended. This report was commissioned as part of the TLOA, and details the problems and solutions to improving the lives of Native people.


Sarah Deer, a 2014 MacArthur Fellow, has worked to end violence against women for more than twenty years. She began as a volunteer in a rape victim advocacy program and later received her JD with a Tribal Lawyer Certificate from the University of Kansas School of Law. She is a professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is author of The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America (forthcoming this fall), coauthor of three textbooks on tribal law, and coeditor of Sharing Our Stories of Survival: Native Women Surviving Violence.

"This is a compelling and compassionate revelation of the eternal violence against Native women. It’s a call to action for all of us."
—The Honorable Ada E. Deer, former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs and enrolled Menominee

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Examining America's rhetoric of postracial progress.

Recent events in America including the #BlackLivesMatter movement are
forcing white Americans to look at race in a way that's uncomfortable—
but also much more realistic.
Image taken in November 2014 of a demonstration in New York City. Credit: Flickr.

Assistant professor of English at University of Nevada, Las Vegas

According to a recent poll, nearly 60 percent of Americans believe race relations are “generally bad.” It’s not hard to see why. From Ferguson to Baltimore to Charleston, racial unrest and violence seem to be getting worse, not better. Pollsters noted that the last time black Americans felt this negatively about race relations was in 1992, when four white police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King, setting off riots in Los Angeles and across the country. The massacre of nine church members in Charleston in June reminded many of the massacre of four black girls at a Birmingham church in 1963. And the 2014 shooting death of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice bore troubling similarities to the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955—the boys even bore a striking physical resemblance.

But perhaps we should go back even further, to the early twentieth century, to what historian Rayford Logan called “the nadir of race relations in the United States.” By then, African Americans in the South had been systematically disenfranchised through poll taxes and literacy clauses, terrorized by vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and straitened by legalized segregation. The influx of Jewish and Catholic immigrants, along with the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North and Midwest, stirred great fears. The nation was becoming less white, less Protestant, more urban. In his 1903 masterwork, The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois declared, “The Problem of the Twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”

Against this inauspicious backdrop, the metaphor of the melting pot entered general usage as a way to describe this new America. Here was an optimistic, feel-good way of looking at the nation, one that supposed that disparate groups could successfully be integrated, or melded, into white American society. The reality, of course, was that many people resisted this ideal. By the 1920s, nativists had passed anti-immigration laws limiting the number of “undesirable” immigrants. Between May and October of 1919, a series of race riots swept the country, leading James Weldon Johnson, field secretary for the NAACP, to call it “Red Summer.” The Ku Klux Klan entered a period of renascence, advocating a policy of “one-hundred-percent Americanism,” where “American” meant one-hundred-percent white (of old-immigrant stock) and Protestant.

I’ve been thinking of this as we enter another period of racial turmoil, nearly one hundred years later. The melting pot has been replaced by the fantasy of a postracial America, another optimistic, feel-good way of looking at the nation, one that supposed disparate groups can successfully transcend race altogether and become “colorblind.” Yet the Tea Party is the new voice of nativism, Donald Trump calls Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, and black lives continue to be lost. Americans have lost the idealism they felt seven years ago, in the aftermath of Obama’s election. Back then, 67 percent believed black-white relations would “eventually be worked out” and 70 percent thought race relations would improve.

In some ways, though, I take heart in the loss of feel-good optimism. Only recently has white pessimism about race relations caught up with black pessimism, and that’s a good thing. Earlier this year, 58 percent of black Americans believed race relations were bad, while only 35 percent of white Americans thought the same. By May, however, 65 percent of black Americans and 62 percent of white Americans thought race relations were bad—an astonishing increase, especially among white subjects. To be sure, it took something like the Baltimore uprising following the funeral of Freddie Gray to shake white Americans out of a kind of willful complacency, with the mainstream media guilty of sensationalizing the protests and fanning white anxiety. But the protests starkly demonstrated that something was wrong—that the rhetoric of postracial progress was papering over deep fissures in American society.

The postracial fantasy, like the melting pot, is a white fantasy. It imagines a smoothing away of difference, a whitewashing of history. As Anna Holmes recently wrote in the New York Times, “Sometimes it seems that as if the desire for a ‘postracial’ America is an attempt by white people to liberate themselves from the burden of having to deal with that legacy.” I couldn't help but think of Ben Affleck's misguided desire to conceal his slaveholder ancestry from the public—a "whitewashing" of his family history and the history of this nation. In the aftermath of this scandal, Affleck posted an "apology," writing: "We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery." No kidding, I thought. But it’s easy for people like Affleck to remain naively idealistic when they don’t have to imagine—or live—life from the point-of-view of a black American. Black Americans, on the other hand, have always had to imagine life from the point-of-view of white Americans. They have always possessed what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “second sight” of double-consciousness—an ability to see complexity and perspective in a way that many white Americans don’t have to. White Americans can be “colorblind”—or just plain blind. Black Americans must have colorvision.

The Black Lives Matter movement, the shootings in Charleston, even the widespread dismay that Atticus Finch is a racist—all of these force white Americans to see race in a way that’s uncomfortable and confusing, but also much more realistic. Jim Crow hasn’t been abolished—it’s gone undercover. Its legacy remains in all aspects of American society, covert but no less insidious, painted over but still there. Getting rid of the Confederate flag in South Carolina or forcing police officers to wear body cameras are ultimately superficial solutions to structural problems. The color line still exists, most starkly in black and white attitudes toward policing, with black Americans more than twice as likely to express anxiety regarding the police in their community. Acknowledging that this is the case is a small but necessary first step to improving race relations and insuring that “the Problem of the Twentieth Century” does not become the problem of the twenty-first.


Julia Lee, assistant professor of English at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is author of Our Gang: A Racial History of The Little Rascals (forthcoming this fall from University of Minnesota Press) and The American Slave Narrative and the Victorian Novel. She was named a 2014 Emerging Scholar by the magazine Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. More information can be found at She tweets @profjulialee.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

On 'big data' and the ways we evaluate women's lives on a global scale

No Ceilings uses data sets to tell stories about gender inequality worldwide.
What are the stories behind the data?
Image: Screenshot,

Assistant professor of political science and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln

On March 9, 2015, one day after International Women’s Day, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gates Foundation co-chair Melinda Gates, and Clinton Foundation vice-chair Chelsea Clinton celebrated the official release of No Ceilings: The Full Participation Report in New York City.

The report and companion website seek to measure the progress women have made since Clinton’s 1995 declaration that “women’s rights are human rights” at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. The reports finds that “there has never been a better time to be born female,” but “major gaps remain.”

The Clinton Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are not the first to use big data to compare and analyze levels of women’s empowerment around the world. In the 1990s, the United Nations Development Program created the Gender-related Development Index (GDI), the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), and more recently, the Gender Inequality Index (GII). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international organization composed of wealthy democracies, has its own Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI).

If these measures should appeal to anyone, they should appeal to me, a social scientist who studies women in politics across countries and continues to use large data sets. But I also have questions and reservations about global data sets that compare women’s lives, some of which grew out of the interviews and daily interactions I had while working on my book in the Republic of Niger.

1. Is one approach to marriage necessarily better than another?

The World Bank has, at least since the late 1980s, been interested in improving women’s lives by encouraging governments to change laws concerning the family. When I first visited Niger, I wanted to understand why the country’s leaders had not reformed its collection of family laws per the World Bank’s wishes. Later, I decided to investigate the history of another non-reform, Niger’s non-ratification of a regional African Union treaty on women’s rights. One issue in both controversies was family property; could, for instance, a daughter inherit the same amount as a son?

According to many projects that compare women’s statuses globally, the prevalence of unequal inheritance practices or laws lowers a country’s international ranking. SIGI, mentioned earlier, examines a large basket of items and takes into account the inheritance rights of daughters vis-à-vis sons.

Something I was unconsciously ignorant of at the beginning of my fieldwork was the difference between community-property and separate-property marital regimes. In California, where I spent most of my upbringing, community property is the default law. In what I believe to be a large percentage of households in Niger, the default regime is not community but separate property. That is, a wife maintains her finances separate from her husband, and vice versa. People with whom I spoke said they did not know how much money their spouses made per month or year or how much wealth their spouses possessed.

Under the ideal form of separate-property ownership, a wife uses her finances for her own purposes, whereas the expectation is that a husband uses his finances to provide food, shelter, and other amenities to the entire family. If men are expected to provide for the entire household and women are expected to keep their own property, then it is fair, for many of the men and women I talked with, for sons to inherit twice as much as daughters.

Things become complicated when, in reality, wives use their resources to also provide for the family. School fees, children’s clothes, medicines, small gifts, and money for children to spend on food while at school may become the purview of women or women and men.

It is also possible that separate property regimes better position women (and men) in the option of leaving one’s marriage. I wonder whether the divorce rate among certain communities in Niger, which is comparable to that of the U.S., is linked to this.

What I came to realize is there are alternatives to community-property marriage that are widely practiced, and it is important to consider the advantages and disadvantages of marriages where financials are kept separate.

2. Are global rankings of women’s statuses a modern reincarnation of the distinction between “civilized” and “uncivilized”?

By no means do I believe that those compiling global comparisons of women’s statuses want to portray the Global South as “uncivilized.” What concerns me, however, is the idea that may emerge from these rankings, that “other” countries and peoples need help but not “my” country or people. This problem is akin to the use of #firstworldproblems, which started with good intentions, but ends up denying that there are problems of access to quality education, malnutrition, poverty, and violence in wealthy countries and that people outside the first world can have so-called petty problems.

The discourse of “these women” being better off than “those women,” I find, can unintentionally perpetuate misunderstanding and be used as part of a backlash against women’s movements. More than I had anticipated, and something I learned from scholars such as political scientist Abdourahmane Idrissa, anti-family law reform and anti-African Union treaty activists used nationalist rhetoric to combat proposed changes to family law. Nigérienne women’s activists were painted as “foreign,” even though most Nigériens could be just as well traveled.

3. How do “non-experts” define inequality differently than “experts”?

One of the most unsettling but illuminating moments in my fieldwork was when a female religious leader asked me why so many foreigners were coming to her, asking her about the lack of family law reform in Niger. Isn’t the real problem poverty? she asked, turning the tables on me.

Anthropologist Sally Engle Merry points out that indicators, while they can be used for good or for ill, “tend to consolidate power in the hands of those with expert knowledge” and that “an increasing reliance on indicators tends to locate decision making in the global North, where indicators are typically designed and labeled.”

I wonder what the No Ceilings report or the SIGI index would look like if they were directed by women and men in the Global South, or by women and men of different socioeconomic classes in the Global North and in the Global South.

I laud former Secretary of State and now presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for her deep commitment to improving women’s lives around the globe, including in the United States. The No Ceilings report was well-conceived and carefully written, and, in my opinion, better attuned to the issues I raised above than other reports. I just hope that if new “experts” and ordinary people get on board with Clinton’s fight for women’s equality, they will consider who is deciding whom is “better off.”


Alice J. Kang is assistant professor of political science and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She is author of Bargaining for Women's Rights: Activism in an Aspiring Muslim Democracy.

"Alice J. Kang compellingly argues that governments are more likely to adopt women's rights reforms when local activists mobilize for them, that opposing activists must also be considered, and that political context is essential for understanding outcomes around women's rights."
—Gretchen Bauer, University of Delaware

"Bargaining for Women’s Rights is a refreshing approach to thinking about women's rights in majority Muslim countries that captures how civil society groups mobilize and how multiple components of 'the state' actually debate women's rights legislation."
—Barbara Cooper, Rutgers University

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Grace Lee Boggs on biracialism, social movements, and hope for America

Grace Lee Boggs, pictured here in 2012, was born on June 27, 1915, in Providence,
Rhode Island. She currently lives in Detroit.

On June 27, 2015, Grace Lee Boggs turned 100 years old. Boggs is a Chinese-American writer, philosopher, and social activist, and author of several books. Her autobiography, Living for Change, was published by University of Minnesota Press in 1998. Boggs has been actively involved with historic social movements including the civil rights and the Black Power movements. Her passionate belief in a better society remains unchecked, and the words she published almost 20 years ago have tremendous resonance with race and activism in the United States today.


Excerpts from Living for Change: An Autobiography by Grace Lee Boggs.

[On growing up in New York] We were the only Chinese in our neighborhood, and everyone we met or had anything to do with—our neighbors, classmates, and teachers—was Caucasian, a good many of them immigrants from Europe or their children. During this period it used to infuriate me when not only my peers but teachers and other adults would ask me, "What is your nationality?" I would reply patiently, as if giving them a civics lesson, that my nationality was American because I was born in the United States but that my parents were Chinese. But no matter how often or how carefully I explained, I would be asked the question again and again, as if to say that I could not be Chinese and American at the same time. Often the questioner, having heard my explanation, would go on to say, "But you speak English so well." It was said sweetly, as if I were being paid a compliment. But the message behind the sweetness was that being Chinese and speaking English well were just as incompatible as being Chinese and American.


When I was in the class of 1935 at Barnard the only people of color on campus were Louise Chin and I, and a Japanese woman, Grace Ijima, of the class of 1934. In the spring of 1995 Louise and I attended our alumnae reunion. It was my sixtieth—and also my first. One of the reasons I decided to attend was that a special alumnae of color reception was on the program. At the reception I learned that today more than 25 percent of Barnard students are Asian and that there are similar percentages at many other colleges and universities. Asian students are now the largest ethnic minority on the University of Michigan campus, and the West Lounge in the South Quad Residence Hall has been renamed in honor of Yuri Kochiyama, the Japanese-American human rights activist who cradled Malcolm's head in her lap as he lay dying on the stage at the Audubon Ballroom in February 1965. Equally interesting, an estimated 50 percent of Asian young people now marry non-Asians, mostly Caucasian but sometimes African American or Hispanic. What that means for the future of this country I cannot begin to imagine. But one thing is for sure: whoever still believes that East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet is not ready for the twenty-first century.


I had participated in enough movements to know that no one can tell in advance what form a movement will take. Movements are not initiated by revolutionaries. They begin when large numbers of people, having reached the point where they can't take the way things are anymore, see some hope of improving their daily lives and begin to move on their own. I have also learned that if you want to know what a movement is going to be about, you should keep your ears close to the grassroots to hear the "why" questions that people are asking. For example, during and after World War II when black folks had acquired a new self-confidence from working in the plant and fighting overseas, they began asking, "Why do white folks treat us this way?" with a new urgency, and so the civil rights movement was born. In the 1960s, when white flight to the suburbs made blacks the majority or near-majority in cities like Detroit, people began asking, "Why are all the political leaders in our city still white?" giving rise to the Black Power movement.


At the 1992 futuring conference [at the University of Michigan] I created a vision of Detroit Youth in the year 2032. A record-breaking snow storm had occurred on the eve of the celebration of Martin Luther King's 103rd birthday, I wrote, but people had no trouble getting to the celebration because young people, organized in Youth Block Clubs, had assumed the right and responsibility to keep the streets clean and safe for the community, especially elders. The vision goes on to describe how community work had been incorporated into the school curriculum, so that elementary schoolchildren working with elders were growing most of the food for the city while middle and high school students were doing most of the work of preparing and serving food in the community, and so on. Having that vision in my head and heart since the futuring conference has helped me time and again to project youth activities that transform young people at the same time that they improve the community.


Grace Lee Boggs is a first-generation Chinese American who has been a speaker, writer, and movement activist in the African American community for more than 70 years. Her autobiography, Living for Change, was published by University of Minnesota Press in 1998.