Minority lives matter
It is not a coincidence that Bangladesh survived Cyclone Mora with few casualties while a landslide in the Chittagong Hill Tracts caused by torrential rains has left over 150 dead. Deforestation and hill-cutting are known causes of "natural disasters" like landslides, but illegal land grabbing in the CHT is at the root of deforestation and hill-cutting in the first place. That the region has little or no infrastructure in place for emergency evacuations or care is symptomatic of the kind of neglect that people in CHT experience on a daily basis. The process is clear: some will gain money and power at all cost, including the cost of human lives and the environment, particularly those lives that are worth less than others.
A fire in Grenfell Tower in London spread quickly killing 70 people and counting. That the building housed some of the most economically disadvantaged people living in the city is, similarly, not a coincidence. The aluminium-clad insulation of the building, added last year as part of a renovation project apparently to improve the view from the luxury apartments in north Kensington, is a fire hazard. That is the reason for which high-rise buildings in the United States, for example, are banned from using it. So on one hand, it is an issue of regulation. But, on the other hand, it raises the question of whether such materials are used only in buildings that house low-income individuals (presumably to reduce the viewing displeasure of the upper classes). At the same time, the (slow) emergency response to the fire indicates that much may not be different between those who were living in Grenfell Tower and those who live in CHT.
Across the Atlantic, in the United States, the police officer responsible for the shooting death of Philando Castile was recently acquitted of manslaughter, even amidst video-evidence of the shooting which started as a conversation about broken taillights. The officer asked Castile to show him his driving license. When he reached for it, he was shot dead. Castile is one of 958 people shot and killed by police in the United States in 2016. In 2017, the police have already killed 460 people.
Also in the United States, a University of Alabama student, Megan Rondini, was raped by an influential man, TJ Bunn Jr, in 2015. When she reported the rape, she found exactly how archaic Alabama's rape laws were. Apparently, in Alabama, it counts as rape only if the victim can prove that she "earnestly" fought back against her rapist. What happened after that can only be termed as repercussions for reporting her rape: she found herself being questioned about crimes she didn't commit. That was used as a bargaining chip — the only way to save herself was by withdrawing her complaint. The university counsellor she sought help from refused services because she was a friend of the perpetrator. In February 2016 she hanged herself. Like many women and men who experience rape, Megan had post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, but little help from institutions that were meant to protect and help her.
What becomes clear is that minority status, be it in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and/or class, puts people in line of various forms of discrimination, which in turn has lifelong repercussions for those who are discriminated against. When some of these identities collide, and each identity faces a different form of power structure, what they experience is compound discrimination. This means, their odds of experiencing systemic violence and discrimination not only goes up, it becomes more complicated, and requires the use of multiple lenses — say, the lenses of race and gender — to understand the experiences of the individuals concerned.
What also becomes clear is that the current forms of governance and social organisation in much of the world are oppressive toward people; indeed, people are subjugated via policies and regulations that protect the wealthy and the powerful. In some cases, the same rules don't even apply.
It is no longer enough to simply say that certain individuals are more likely to be discriminated against. We need to identify the problem by its name — institutional discrimination, institutional racism, institutional sexism, institutional classism — and dismantle the system that systematically renders the lives of certain people an uphill struggle against a world that tells them that working hard will solve their problems, a world that blames individuals for structural problems that they had no role in creating.
The underlying thread linking all these stories is the thread of discrimination, particularly of minority group members, by institutions and individuals in positions of power.
This Eid, as we end our month-long fasting ritual in an effort to internalise the experiences of those who are less fortunate than us, let us condemn the laws, regulations, and systems that maintain this "misfortune." In Bangladesh. In the United Kingdom. In the United States. Everywhere.
Let us recognise that discrimination against one is injustice toward all.
The author is Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, University at Buffalo, State University of New York.