Reproductive Justice: In Conversation with Loretta Ross
[Music] Hello, everyone. Tonight's event is hosted by the Reproductive Justice Interest Group at CSSW, the School of Social Work, as well as by MOSAIC at the Mailman School of Public Health, the CSSW Action Lab, and the CSSW Office of Professional Excellence. Additionally, the event is sponsored by MOSAIC at the Mailman School of Public Health and the Office of University Life as well as the CSSW Office of Student Life. We're also very excited that this event will be moderated by a CSSW class of 2020 alum, Z Cordero. Z Cordero, who uses they/them pronouns, is a Black and Latinx full-spectrum doula, activist, and harm reductionist. They are a recent Columbia School of Social Work alum and work full-time at a New York City high school, where they provide mandated counseling, general psychotherapy services, and serve as the advisor to the school's GSA.
And now I'll pass the mic to Z, who will be introducing our speaker for tonight, Professor Loretta Ross. Good evening, everyone, and thank you so much for that kind introduction. It's my honor to present to you all Professor Loretta Ross. Professor Loretta Ross is a visiting associate professor at Smith College in the Program of the Study of Women and Gender for the 2019-2021 academic years.
She's an activist, a public intellectual, and a scholar. She started her career in activism and social change in the 1970s, working at the National Football League Players Association, the D.C.-- sorry, the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, the National Organization for Women, the National Black Women's Health Project, the Center for Democratic Renewal, the National Center for Human Rights Education, and SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, until retiring as an organizer in 2012 to teach about activism.
Her most recent books are Reproductive Justice: An Introduction, co-written with Rickie Solinger, and Radical Reproductive Justice: Foundation, Theory, Practice, and Critique, both published in 2017. Her forthcoming book is called Calling in the Calling Out Culture: Detoxing Our Movement, due to be out in 2021. She has also appeared on CNN, BET, The Lead Story, Good Morning America, The Donahue Show, the National Geographic Channel, and the Charlie Rose show. She has been quoted in the New York Times, Time magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post, among many others. Her activism began as a rape and incest survivor as a teen mother.
She graduated from Agnes Scott College at the age of 55. She is from San Antonio, Texas, and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, currently. She is a mother, a grandmother, and an avid pinochle player.
Her dream is to see Venus and Serena Williams play tennis in person, and her website is www.lorettajross.com. And without further ado, welcome, Professor Ross. Thank you.
And you're one of the few people that introduced me that know how to say the word "pinochle." Because it's such a rich word attached to a bridge-like card game. Well, anyway, as you could hear, my name is Loretta Ross. It is my honor to talk to y'all tonight. As you can tell, I've got a lot of work on reproductive justice, and I'll be talking about that mostly tonight, but I want to do so through a different lens because, more recently, I've been working on the concept of reproductive futurism. And so I'm going to talk about reproductive justice through the lens of reproductive futurism, if you don't mind.
And first, I'm going to start by sharing my slide deck with you. Despite a year of being on Zoom, that doesn't mean I think I'm good at it. OK. Well, again, my name is Loretta Ross.
And I've become a-- I became a professional feminist when I was a teenager, when I was sterilized and had to deal with some sexual assault survivor stuff and all that. But I'm not going to tell you my story. That's available in a lot of different places.
But I want to talk about where we are today and why someone who helped create the concept of reproductive justice is turning my lens more towards our reproductive future, or what I call reproductive futurism. I did not invent the term "reproductive futurism." It actually comes out of queer study as a term-- a really dystopian look at what-- how a lot of people are worshipping what they call the child fetish, the feeling that you're obligated to have children and all of that, which is being interrogated within the LGBTQ movement. But I want to take a different look at it, so I'm borrowing the term from that discipline to apply it through the lens of reproductive justice. And I want to start by saying history, of course, never says goodbye. History says, see you later, as Eduardo Galeano says.
And so I have to situate my talk today in the context of what's going on in our country because this informs why we came up with the concept of reproductive justice, how we came up with the concept, and how we project it into the future. Now, reproductive futurism is a Black feminist theory of reproductive science and technology that prioritizes Black women's reproductive experiences by centering ourselves in the lens to examine this whole concept of technoutopianism and to resist what we believe will become technoeugenics. And we really need to ask ourselves, how will our children suffer in the future because of what we're doing now? Because we're really seeing a lot of science privileging biogenetic relations while not critiquing biological determinism, which is an undergirding foundational part of this whole white supremacist system in which we're absorbed. And there's a lot of research on reproductive longevity and equality, but there's such a mismatch between how long women live and how long men live and our reproductive lifespans, and what are those going to have, those effects on gender equality? Of course, men can continue to produce viable sperm for a long time longer than women are going to be able to have babies, so we need to look at this stuff. And then whether or not our pre-existing structural inequalities, like racism in the medical field as well as the scientific field, will be upgraded if we don't pay attention to these biogenetic relations right now that we're looking at and actually asking the question, who will be excluded from benefiting from scientific advancements, and why will those exclusions take place in the first place? And for infertility issues, which disproportionately affects African American women, we're asking, will there be government-funded public surrogacy services for us as well as other people who are having to privatize their reproductive decision-making instead of getting the public assistance that is their human right to receive.
And, really, the real question that we ask as a feminist is, is worshipping on the altar of genetic replication of our ourselves actually good for the future? Because, I mean, what's so special about our DNA? I mean, there's so many other ways to parent other than producing an almost carbon copy of yourself. Are we even interrogated that concept enough as we look for our reproductive futures? And, of course, as I'll tell you through the reproductive justice framework, we talk about the human right to have a child, but what does that actually mean? Do we have the human right to exploit more vulnerable people in order to achieve our desires for a child? Can we really interrogate uneven development across the world so that we end up with these surrogacy markets that exploit people's economic vulnerabilities or the lack of competent and universal health care in these countries and whatever? And then, of course, we also have to look at the larger picture too. How will climate change and other environmental vulnerabilities also have an impact on our reproductive decision-making? So let's talk about some demographic issues. First of all, white people will become a minority within a very short period in the middle of the 20th century. It may indeed happen as early as 2030.
Some people say 2050. And I've got a clip from a film called Demographic Winter that discusses this factor that's really driving a lot of our pro-natalist policies in the Western countries. And of course we're going to see the impact of climate change as it produces an estimated 200 million global refugees. At the same time, white people in this country will become a minority, so what will the friction of those two huge demographic shifts mean for how people will be making their reproductive decisions and really even as-- even will the state-based system that we have, of human rights and deciding how people should govern and live, even grow outdated? Because right now we're seeing governments lose control over information, pandemics obviously, businesses, money crime, environmental problems, and migration.
So there's a lot of pressures on reproductive decision-making. And of course we're watching in real time white supremacists and white nationalists demanding an upgraded form of imperialism, think that they're trying to rejustify colonialism. Bruce Gilley wrote an article from Portland State University talking about colonialism. Got a bad rap because at least we built roads kind of thing, and there may be a new form of apartheid that some people want because that's the only way for a minority of a population to control its majority, is through an apartheid-like system, which we're seeing of course implemented in all attacks on-- all the attacks we see in 43 states on voting rights right now. And will there be new forms of segregation based on class, based on race, other things, and other undemocratic Democratic policy to preserve white privileges? And there's a real risk of perpetual internal and external wars, which will be justified to secure natural resources.
Mostly every war the United States has perpetuated over the last half century has been around manipulating other governments so that we can control and obtain natural resources, particularly oil, which we should be transitioning off of anyway, but there's a lot of reasons we're not. And so the scientific and technological developments may or will enable the upgrading of the social and economic inequalities, and that's going to require how governments operate, how corporations operate, how universities operate, and how nonprofits operate. So in 1994, I was one of 12 Black women who conceptualized reproductive justice, and at the time we created it, in June of 1994, it was designed to fight white supremacy and population control. And what we did was put ourselves in the center of the land. A lot of people mistakenly think that we created reproductive justice as a way to push back on the binary of pro-choice, pro-life, but that absolutely is not true.
That is not why we created that framework. As a matter of fact, if that had been our goal instead of centering ourselves in the lens of our analysis, we would have had to center what's going on with white women in the center of our lens. And so by putting ourselves in the lens, we were actually building on what had gone on before among Black women trying to become reproductively self-determining. As you see, there's that picture on the left, the top left, of a 1970s protest by Black women protesting sterilization abuse and how it violates the UN Charter, article 25, which actually speaks to genocide. And of course you see us at the-- at what was called a pink pussy march, saying never again would we use coathangers and go back to those old days of forced breeding. And then when they populated the country with these anti-abortion billboards claiming that the most dangerous place for a child-- an African American child is in the womb, then we had to start our Trust Black Women campaign to fight for our right to-- for self-determination, which is, of course, fighting for the right to access abortion and birth control and all of that.
And so reproductive justice is not that hard to understand. It has three basic human rights principles that we demand. First of all, we have the human right to have a child. And the reason that this is one of our leading tenets is because Black women, since the end of slavery, have always had to fight strategies of population control as our fertility is demonized and our bodies are criminalized, as I'll talk about later.
So by centering ourselves in the lens, we knew we needed to come up with a framework that talked about the right to have a child. But we also, when we created the framework, joined and overlapped with the pro-choice movement because we fight equally hard for the right not to have a child, and that means fighting for the right to access birth control, abortion, abstinence if you can hold on. And that's-- and the response from both those first two movements, a whole new movement that has called itself the birth justice movement. Because when you talk about the right to have a child, you're talking about the midwifery movement, the doula movement, the right to refuse unnecessary Cesarean, the right to have your birth plans respected when you go to the hospital, and those kind of things. And of course the third tenet of reproductive justice, the right to raise our children in safe and healthy environments, brings us into conversation with all the other things that affect our reproductive decision-making.
And that's an extensive list because that's nearly every field of human endeavor, whether it's about how schools are funded through property taxes, whether or not there's gun violence, whether there's environmental problems, whether there's potable drinking water, like the parents of Flint, Michigan, don't have access to, whether the tax policies, whether the land-use policies, immigration policy, sovereignty issues, all of these things are implicated within the third, the most capacious tenet, and that's the right to parent our children. Now, we came up with reproductive justice because we were really frustrated, the way abortion activism seemed to be always isolated from other human rights and social justice issues that we were working on. And we analyzed that even if they made abortion totally free, available, and accessible for people, we would still have all these other pre-existing human rights violations going on in our lives, all these other social justice issues. So we coined the term "reproductive justice" by splicing the-- together the term "reproductive rights" and "social justice." And the 12 of us who did that then started a campaign to get reproductive justice used as an organizing framework by women of color that was created by Black women, but it really caught on fire among women of color and has been so successful, I would argue that it has challenged to-- the traditional pro-choice, pro-life binary in its popularity and in its radicalism. Because not only does reproductive justice, as I say-- said before, critique white supremacy and population control, but it offers a very strong critique of neoliberal capitalism as well.
Now, that's where it was in 1994. But then other people who were part of the RJ movement, as we call it, who were queer people of color wanted to have a tenet that was inclusive of them as well. And, of course, we the founders quickly agreed that we needed to expand reproductive justice.
And so, to create a less womb-centric examination of reproductive justice as a human right, they created QPOC, our Queer People of Color Caucus, with the SisterSong, wrote that individuals have the human right to disassociate sex from reproduction, and healthy sexuality and pleasure are essential components to whole and full human life. And so with this, what I expect-- fully expect to happen with reproductive justice is because of its capacity and because of its elasticity and because of its intentional ambiguity, that it will be really adaptive by many different populations because it's based on the human rights framework, and everybody has the same human rights. It's just that we all need something different to protect our human rights based on our own intersectional identities. And so a lot of confusion is out there between what's the difference between reproductive health and reproductive rights and reproductive justice? Well, in our explanation of the reproductive justice model, we believe that reproductive health is-- focuses on service delivery, on individuals in the system, beating-- treating their specific health care needs.
Of course, this is the medical industrial complex and the people involved in that, but they focus much more on the individual health needs, though as they're looking more at the social determinants of health, they're also interrogating the societal and economic conditions that are producing the reproductive health needs and affecting the reproductive health needs of individuals. The reproductive rights framework is synonymous, in our view, with the pro-choice framework. These are the people who fight within the limits of the US Constitution to advocate for the right to keep abortion safe and legal, to access abort-- I'm sorry, contraceptive care, to fight for things like including contraceptives in the Affordable Care Act, that kind of thing.
And-- but they are limited because they work within, as I said, the limits of the US Constitution. Reproductive justice, in contrast, is an organizing framework that works in tandem with the reproductive health right movement. So that's why you often hear it said-- when you hear it as a string, they say reproductive health rights and justice, because we believe that we've got to go beyond the US Constitution, which is definitely limited in protecting people's human rights. And so one of the main ways we use reproductive justice is to build coalitions with people from other social justice movements like economic justice, Black Lives Matter, racial justice, environmental justice, Indigenous rights, immigrant rights, workers' rights, et cetera, et cetera. And so one of the things that we do, very intentionally, is provide feeder lines into the reproductive justice model so that we can broaden our base beyond simply those people concerned with abortion politics.
And so after we created this framework in 1994, it became so popular that different people were adopting it. Which is fine because we've always maintained that just because it was created by Black women doesn't mean it was only limited to Black women, because Black women are capable of creating universal theory. I mean, obviously many of you have used the theory of intersectionality that was created by Kimberlé Crenshaw, just like you've used the concept of identity politics, created by the Combahee River Collective. But we had to meet at one point to decide, well, what would we affirm as being consistent with our reproductive justice framework? And that's where these standards came from. And so we say it has to-- if you're going to use reproductive justice, you have to use intersectionality, use human rights as your legal, moral, and cultural, and political framework, you've got the center the most vulnerable people in the lens.
But it's a very shifting lens because, depending on who you put in the center, while their human rights violations and protections occur will be different, you have to link what's happening locally to global issues. For example, in the United States, we are dealing with Republican devolution of government responsibility, which are-- which is our own form of our own austerity programs that you see in the structural adjustment programs that are taking place around the globe and that we believe that people within this matrix of oppression cannot make independent reproductive decisions without considering the context in which they're making these decisions, the structures of inequality. So you can easily imagine that an undocumented person who lacks citizenship papers is going to have-- is going to hesitate in going to a hospital or to a medical provider for prenatal care, for example.
And so you can't even conceptualize how people actually experience accessing health care and controlling their reproductive destinies without considering the structures of inequality in which they're embedded, the same way that if trans reproductive health services are not available, then that's going to have a major impact on someone who is trans trying to either have a baby or not have a baby or really just protect their reproductive capacity with this forced gender reassignment surgery that is invoked every time they get arrested and then what population they need to get out or to get state ID and those kinds of things. And you've got to address cultural assumptions, that we are all basically are culturally incompetent with each other, and so we can't make-- let our cultural assumptions about people, also known as implicit biases, overly determine our reproductive decision-making-- or assumptions about other people's reproductive decision-making. So, for example, we offer a strong critique of long-acting reversible contraceptives, or LARCs, not because they're medically unadvised, because they actually are quite safe, but the fact then-- but the fact that they're not offered in a range of reproductive options and contraceptive options and often are being promoted exclusively on some of the most vulnerable people within our society. And it's not reproductive justice if it doesn't seek to build power to address human rights violations, eliminate human rights violations, and include everyone. And so we also bring into reproductive justice, particularly as I look at it through a reproductive futurist lens, the concept of necropolitics. This is a term created by African scholar Achille Mbembe, and it's about the use of social and political power to dictate how some people may live and how some people must die because our capitalist system kind of has decided which lives matter and which lives don't.
And so-- I went the wrong way. And so Foucault talks about the use of social and political power to control people's lives, so this-- so Mbembe is actually building upon what Foucault said about biopower, which is the use of social and political power to control people's lives. So when I'm talking about reproductive futurism, I'm examining how these scientific and technological advances actually end up replicating the power disparities, and it really upgrades the injustices that we are seeing every day against Black bodies. And we're going to have to do this paradigm shift to a different worldview, and I favor the concept-- African concept of ubuntu, philosophical concept, basically expressed "I am because we are," that talks about human interdependence versus that European individual, alienated, atomized kind of Randian worldview that actually privileges what we call reproductive individualism, which isolates people from a context in which their reproductive decisions make plays.
And we, of course, as RJ activists, we're going to always critique the monetization of life and human needs like water, air, for clean environment, food, shelter, education, health care, safety, and peace because these are all part of what should be the social contract for life. And, in fact, they are human rights obligations that are usually not being fulfilled by the people who have the responsibility for the protection of human rights. And, of course, we also offer a critique of the commodification of white women and white babies. Because there's an intense market for white babies that undergird all reproductive injustices right now. Like, I am totally convinced that what is the white fear that is driving all the restrictions on birth control and abortion have nothing to do with them wanting more brown and Black babies to be born but because they want more white babies to be born in the form of race-based social engineering. And I'll be talking about that more in the future.
And we also need to, like I said, linking the global to the local, we also analyze international development policies that permit pharmaceuticals, for example, to exploit the vulnerabilities of human populations, particularly those in the global south, using market-based approaches instead of human-centered strategy. The only thing-- there are two major pandemics that have broken through to that, with the activism that people did around HIV/AIDS and the pandemic of COVID has broken through that a little bit, creating more-- well, COVID, of course, has created unprecedented collaboration amongst the pharmaceuticals because you're talking about the worldwide collapse of capitalism if they didn't do that, so I think they got that. Plus, they're making a lot of money off of it anyway. But the point is, they had to start cooperating with each other instead of only competing with each other.
And there's a growing body of Black women's literature, particularly their science and their technology literature, that's also being infused into our fiction that is really lifting into an Afrofuturistic framework the experiences of Black women and Black men and Black LGBT people and all of our reproduction. And so I alluded earlier to the criminalization of Black women's bodies that's a driver of our analyses. Of course, before the Civil War ended, our fertility was prized because it made profits for the slave economy.
But of course, immediately after the Civil War, it became problematic for the same people who thought that they could make money off of us. But, interestingly, in the 50 years after the Civil War-- I'm sorry, 60 years after the Civil War, Black women cut their own birth rate in half, and that was almost a decade before Margaret Sanger started her campaign to legalize birth control. And so this was proven by a study that W.E.B. Du Bois did, a sociological study that showed that Black women were using some secrets of birth control, maybe abortion and maybe infanticide, I'm not sure, that were carried over from Africa that became even more popularly used and accessible even before the campaign by Sanger to decriminalize the use of contraceptives or to legalize birth control. But that didn't mean we could avoid these stereotypes of Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire to portray us basically a fundamentally unnatural mothers and bad women and-- I reversed that, but somehow our mothering skills were only considered adequate when we were mothering white people's babies. When we were mothering our own, we were considered poor decision-makers and bad mothers.
And so we end up with what Dorothy Roberts and others will critique as the punishment of Black reproduction to the child welfare and foster-care system and overpolicing of our children and ourselves through the criminal injustice system. And you get an example of the disposability of Black bodies through discrimination in laws that are race-neutral on the surface but are applied in anything but a race-neutral way, like your stand-your-ground law. After George Zimmerman got off from killing Trayvon Martin down in Florida, in the same, same state of Florida, Marissa Alexander, who shot a gun into the air to frighten off her ex-husband, who had an order of protection against him because he was so violent, she shot a gun into the air. It didn't even hit anybody. And she got sentenced to 20 years in prison for attempted murder, but not George Zimmerman.
So we can see that these laws are not actually being meant for us to use as protection. And I could do a whole talk about the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by the Koch brothers, that has created all these model bills all across America, including the model anti-voting rights legislation that 43 states are considering. So I mentioned earlier the contraceptives like LARC and Depro-Provera that target Black women but also Latinos and other vulnerable people. And, of course, we've still got continuing sterilization abuse in our society.
I've been working a lot with the ICE whistle-blower named Dawn Wooten, who exposed that under Trump women who were applying for entry into our country as immigrants and being held in the ICE detention centers were illegally being sterilized. Whatever their health condition it was, whether they complained about an ingrown toenail, they'd come back with most of their plumbing missing. And until she exposed this-- and she's a nurse.
She's a LPN working in the ICE detention centers for a number of years. And she was pulling together what looked like anecdotal data that turned into a pattern, and then she discovered people shredding documents to hide what they were doing. And so when she decided to go public with her complaints, because she was getting no support for running it up the food chain to say, this is wrong, you just can't sterilize people because they're not here with documentation and papers and how profitable this sterilization racket was, well, of course she got fired.
And she hasn't been able to get a job ever since, even though she wasn't a feminist, she wasn't a political activist, she was just a nurse trying to do the right thing. So here she is, unemployed, with five children. And I wish the people in Congress-- the Republicans in Congress had her courage, but they can't stand up and do the right thing, and they make a whole lot more money than Dawn did.
But moving right along. Anyway, so we've got a system that's providing reproductive punishments through pregnancy, policing, and arrest for self-managed abortions, for example, and a lot of discrimination against Black children, of course, with-- through state and non-state practices, like adultifying our children, so that if you've got a kindergartener having a temper tantrum, they call the police instead of a counselor. Or the nine-year-old girl in Rochester who got sprayed, I think, with pepper spray and handcuffs, I mean.
And, of course, what happened to Tamir Rice and Mike Brown and on and on and Trayvon and on and on. And then, of course, we are also criticizing the lack of remedies available through the legal system to address these injustices, and we're dealing with institutionalized racism in the health care system that ignores or minimizes Black pain and suffering. I mean, I think y'all all recall when Serena Williams was complaining about embolisms, no one took her seriously.
And she's very privileged, very wealthy, very famous, and they still wouldn't even listen to her. So you can imagine what's happening to other Black women when people ignore and minimize our pain. Camara Jones, of course, has created the concept of the social determinants of health, and she writes that systemic racism manifests in the lives of Black people as reproductive oppression, which limits the choices of Black people in terms of when and how they can become pregnant, limits the care they receive during and post-pregnancy, and can expose parents to institutional oppression. Exposure to systemic racism contributes to high rates of maternal and infant mortality and morbidity among Black people who can become pregnant in the United States. Public health scholars describe systemic racism as a pandemic overlaid, of course, with the COVID pandemic in this country that is a public health crisis. And we have this public health crisis-- forgive me.
I've got to dip back into politics to come back at the reproductive justice, but I believe that we're in the middle of an unfinished Civil War. Whether or not America is going to be a country dedicated to freedom and justice or white supremacy and ruled by a minority has not yet been established, as you saw what happened at the Capitol. Not to repeat what happened. But this was actually eminently predictable. Ulysses S. Grant became the president four years after Lincoln was assassinated, and he said, if we are to have another Civil War, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side and superstition, ambition, and ignorance on the other.
Because he was facing multiple insurrections by the Confederates from the South trying to overthrow the government in Washington, just like we saw in January. And so I believe that the media is too busy coming up with a false analysis because they keep saying the country is divided. No. The country is not divided. White people are divided over the choice of chaos or community, the same question that Dr. King asked us back in the 1960s,
because white supremacy and democracy are fundamentally incompatible. And they keep this up with the euphemisms that the media uses to avoid saying "white people." And just like-- I live in Atlanta, but we're still reeling from the anti-Asian murders that happened here two years ago-- I mean, two days ago, and we had a-- and let me try not to curse, a sheriff from Cherokee County claimed that, well, he was just having a bad day trying to end his sex addiction. And this passive recognition of the humanity of a murderer, a mass murderer, while you fail to recognize the humanity of all his victims, and you're excusing it because white men are allowed to have bad days and become mass murderers? Why don't you just call him a Christian fundamentalist white supremacist, what he actually was? But then we found out that the cop who made that euphemism about this murderer also had some white supremacist beliefs himself.
So you can't ask another white supremacist to call out another white supremacist, apparently. So since I'm on white supremacy, I want to talk about the components of it, because a lot of people reduce white supremacy to just racism, but it has a lot of components to this hydra. You know, settler colonialism, Christian nationalism, nativism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, which is often underlooked-- overlooked and understudied, biological determinism, which brings us back to reproductive futurism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and authoritarianism. And I believe that we are hovering on the precipice of whether we're going to be a democracy emerging, because we've never actually been an actual democracy, or if we're going to tip over into neofascism.
And that question still has not been decided. And of course, we're looking at the Republican strategy for the Biden administration, and one of their media strategists said, quite frankly, what they're trying to do, that if they cannot firmly control this country, they don't want to share it. We're in an era where you need to make loud noises and break things in order to get attention. It doesn't matter what you're breaking: norms, laws, standards, whatever, democracy itself. As long as you're creating conflict and appeasing your party, anything goes.
And so this is an out-and-out strategy to appeal to their most extreme base. They want to impeach Biden and Harris. They want to get revenge for losing the election. And I guess they're concerned about the crimes that Trump may be charged with. They want to eliminate opponents. They don't want to debate their opponents.
They want to eliminate them, and they quash dissent within their ranks. They want to block all policies offered by the Biden administration in a classic-- and what they did to Obama on steroids. And I think they packed the judiciary as a way to protect themselves from criminal prosecution. And it's very hard to understand the nihilistic policies driving this stuff, but Jonathan Metzl is a physician who wrote this book called Dying of Whiteness, and he researched the health data for lower- and middle-class white Americans who voted for Trump. Now, I should say, Trump is a cross-class coalition, because when he defeated Hillary Clinton, and if you buy that defeat, the people who voted for Donald Trump make $30,000 more a year than the people who voted for Hillary Clinton.
So this narrative that it was economic-- people were economically left behind by new neoliberalism was the reason Trump was elected, it's just a bunch of crap. It's poor science. But anyway, Metzl wanted to look at lower and middle-class white Americans who voted for Trump, and that white resentment, that racial resentment, means that they end up opposing policies that could benefit them, like the ACA, if they believe that Black people and other people of color will benefit.
He actually had quotes from a man that said, I'd rather die of cancer than let those illegal immigrants get free health care kind of attitude. And of course, despite their need for it, they're anti-union, anti-tax, anti worker's right, and they somehow believe that they're only a lottery ticket away from joining Trump and his millionaire, billionaire status because they support tax cuts for the wealthy because this indicates a strong economy, like Wall Street's numbers have anything to do with how many people are unemployed because of COVID. Because the economy is booming, but people are suffering. Anyway, because Trumpism continues what Reaganism started, which is trickle-down benefits, they have this expectation of it, and they're willing to engage in violence to prevent what they call the white apocalypse or white genocide. I do want to stop for a minute because I want to get a time check.
I know this was billed as a two-hour thing, and I've got about another half hour of presentation to go through. But I wanted to leave a half hour for discussion. So I just want to get a time check to see if that's OK with you, Susan, and what you're planning. I think that sounds great. That's fine.
We should have discussed this ahead of time, but I looked at the two-hour block, and I did a PowerPoint for it, and then I realized, well, maybe I should have asked her about that before I started running my mouth. So if you're OK, well, I'll just keep on, then. And if you could start piling up your questions in either the chat or the Q&A, and then we could spend that last hour-- half hour interrogating what I presented.
Oh, and actually, you know what? I know we-- Saman said this in the beginning. We do have prepared questions that folks sent in at registration for you. So, sorry, we won't have-- we don't have open Q&A just now because we have a long list of questions prepared.
But thanks. OK, well, that works. All right, then.
So let me go back here and go back to sharing. Anyway, I want to take a minute and show you this film. It's only five minutes long, but it's about-- it's the film Democratic-- Demographic Winter that I told you about. White fears are disappearing. It's an excerpt from it. [FILM PLAYING] The Romans in the time of Julius Caesar were totally preoccupied by the fear that they were not producing enough children.
The sterile pagan nobility died out within their ancestors' idea of Rome. No one wanted to have any children, and no one wanted to get married. Catastrophically falling birth rates, well below the replacement level. It's entirely possible that the French will disappear. There will be no native-born French that come from the traditional French population. What some call the demographic winter of Western societies.
It's happening in rich countries, it's happening in poor countries, it's happening in Catholic countries, Islamic countries. And that is everywhere. People are having fewer and fewer children.
Never in history have we had economic prosperity accompanied by depopulation. When there are many too many old people and not very many young people to work and look after them, which is what's on the books now, well, mathematically speaking, you're going to have economic collapse. There won't be enough people to run the trains or pay the taxes. For those of us who were raised to believe in the teachings of Thomas Malthus or Charles Darwin, for example, these trends are very hard to absorb. And for such a small nation as Latvia, it might even endanger the survival of the nation.
The only way you can sort of preserve the theory is to say, well, certain kinds of human beings are on the way to extinction. Now we have 40 years of social science that makes it absolutely clear that the deterioration of marriage, the encouragement of sexuality outside of marriage, is just not-- it's not good for society, women children, or men. On every measure ever measured by the social sciences, the intact married family is the strongest on every outcome ever measured. We as the policymakers think that the best way to improve the demographic situation is by strengthening the families. It's also true, I think, for people who are worried about women's rights, about the gay rights, about environmentalism, all these movements are deeply informed by a 1970s-era preoccupation with the so-called population bump. [MUSIC INTENSIFIES, THEN SLOWS] There's not much quibble.
There's not much controversy among people in the know. [FILM PAUSED] I want you to notice about that film that they somehow never mention the word "race," but they were all white people afraid of being disappeared. And this is what brings me to white genocide paranoia. Because I study the far right. My course is called White Supremacy in the Age of Trump at Smith and which I infuse reproductive justice, reproductive futurism. But it's really deep in the American psyche, the white American psyche, that combines a strong current of racism and anti-Semitism, because if you study white supremacist literature, you find that they always believe that people of color in general and Black people in particular are being manipulated by Jewish people, they claim, so that they are trying to destroy the real white Aryan race.
And even though they don't say that openly as often as they mean it, but we can always detect what they say and what they mean. And so they call this "white genocide," extinction by genetically or culturally inferior non-whites. Of course, they consider any white woman who does interracial marriage or interracial breeding as a race traitor, and they are really afraid. And of course they promote, like Hitler did, the myth of the preservation of the pure white race, and this offers them a lot of misogynistic and sexual tropes, where they believe that white women have to be controlled and all other people need to be contained or eliminated. This has been going on since the founding of the United States as a settler-colonial project. But in 1916, Madison Grant wrote a book that Richard Spencer likes to talk about.
Richard Spencer's the man who created the term alt-right. The Passing of the Great Race. And of course eugenics gave rise to scientific racism that keeps repeatedly getting legitimated in academia, whether it's Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray talking about the bell curve and all, on and on.
And then the conservatives minimize this paranoia because they'll just say something, well, we can't-- we have to protect Western civilization. But they really mean the domination by white people. And that shows the endurance of eugenical thinking.
It affects our policies today almost as strongly as it affected them 100 years ago but not as openly. And so we ended up with nativist immigration policies, beginning with the Page Act in 1875, followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. And then they passed the Johnson Immigration Act to set up quotas for immigration by non-white people. And then, at the same time, most people don't notice that that was the same time they passed a federal law against interracial marriage, the anti-miscegenation legislation. And of course Richard Spencer I alluded to before starts echoing Grant in supporting Trump.
He's trying to play both ends because he's saying Trump wasn't racist enough, so he went from the right to the left. Now he says he supports Biden because that will hurry on the racial holy war that he sees coming. And then, of course, this anti-Semitism was expressed most deadly by Robert Bauer, who committed the pogrom at the Pittsburgh synagogue in 2019. And so this is why I have this concept of reproductive futurism that we need to talk about.
My co-author Rickie Solinger talks about the myth of reproductive individualism and these late 20th and early 21st-century notions of fertility and reproduction that overly rely on new reproductive technologies. And combining these races and ethnic nationalism have featured like never before the idea of individual choices, that people could make individual choices outside of the context in which they're embedded and despite the privileges or lack thereof that they have. And so when you center individualism, it looks like you disassociate reproduction from demographic, environmental, and political matters. Yet, notably, public officials have always relied on reproductive individualism as a concept to make space for lifting up claims of racial, ethnic, and religious hierarchy, kind of like the way that the Comstock laws in 1873 banned birth control, aiming at white women so that white women could have more babies for the fulfillment of manifest destiny. In the US, for example, when you make these brutal racialized distinctions, you end up talking about good choice makers and bad ones, as I alluded to earlier.
And in the past couple decades, to some extent, this targeted hordes of reproductive individualism. Reproductive justice has come as a counterweight to this, which is driven by Black women, because we want to focus political attention and official public policy, though to a less extent on fertility and reproduction, as ways that they are intersectionally and broad and have so many impacts in areas that aren't even being monitored by the traditional focus on reproductive health or on reproductive rights. And so this ideology of reproductive individualism prevails, as public policies and white nationalist sentiment shape the conditions of birthing and dying in the US and everywhere which echoes that necropolitic analysis that Mbembe offered us earlier. So these are some of the key questions reproductive futurists ask-- reproductive justice futurists ask. Will we-- how will we apply the principles of RJ in the future, and how will they differ when we apply them? How do we even enshrine a genetic individual as a political subject with inalienable rights like human rights? And since RJ is based on a human-rights framework, which is a nations-based accountability system, how will the shifting elimination of national borders affect the implementation of this rights-based system in which national borders are becoming irrelevant? And they're very porous, in looking at the environmental issues, the crime issues, the money issues, the labor issues that I've talked about. And since we are all wishing-- witnessing the slow breakdown of neoliberal capitalism, what different philosophical or economic theories should be considered for moving forward for the preservation not only of the human race but for preservation of the planet and all the animals as well as humans on this planet? And how will these power relationships mutate to protect white supremacist structures as the world reshuffles and the demographics dramatically change? With people of color becoming the majority of people in the United States, these are questions we feel we need to ask because we believe that sexual freedom and autonomy to determine what sexuality and gender identity are the key to reproductive justice for individuals, families, and communities.
And so since we fight and center the fight against white supremacy and population control, how are we going to reject analyses of global reproductive politics that do not incorporate deconstructing white supremacy, neoliberal capitalism, and imperialism? In other words, we have a fight within our own movement because people who support abortion and birth control, for example, may be doing it for reasons other than centering only empowerment of people who use these services. And we're going to have to work with other social justice movements to build this new human rights framework to save our lives, our families, and our communities in the future. So to summarize, RJ believes that the ability of any person to determine what happens to their body is directly related to what's happening in their communities. And when you control people's bodies, it's really the way you can control the entire community, when you use eugenics logics to impose population control and social engineering strategy.
And the number of human rights protections or violations that an individual experience will affect their right of self-determination and whether they are free from violence or coercion. And so we have to use these new theories, strategies, and practices to build the reproductive justice wing of the human rights movement. I'm going to stop here because I've got a lot more I could go, but you've got a long list of questions. And so let's open it up for answering some of those questions.
All right, Dr.-- or Professor Russ, rather. Thank you so much for that thought-provoking lecture. I really appreciate it, and I'm sure all of our attendees appreciate it tonight too. So as for our pre-submitted questions, the first question of the night is, as one of the co-founders of the reproductive justice movement, how have you seen a shift since its creation until now? Well, I spoke about some of his shifts, where we started broadening our lens beyond cis women and started looking at gender-nonconforming people, trans people, queer people, and all of that.
So that's a shift, and I find that as it migrates to different populations, it gets again re-adapted and shifts again. Because when it goes into Indigenous community, they invoke issues of sovereignty and treaties with the US government that are not available to other people who have been minoritized, for example. Where we're a sub-unit of the US state, they are acting different nations negotiating with the state, for example. Or when it migrates into immigrant women's experiences, they speak more of a living-- living within a diaspora, in the borderlands of having one foot in one country and one foot in another country metaphorically, and so they use reproductive justice differently. And one of the things that has surprised me since I was in at the beginning and I've watched this arc very closely is how adaptable it is transnationally, that people are using it, surprising me, in other countries to carve out political space or talking about issues that they could not get lifted up into the public discourse.
Like, if you just focus on abortion, sometimes that conversation is shut down, but when you lead with human rights and reproductive justice, that sometimes it's creating space, political space, that didn't exist before. Thank you so much for that answer. And to follow up on that, I think many folks feel sometimes that the term "reproductive justice" has been co-opt and it's often used to mean other things. Like when people talk about reproductive justice, maybe they're only talking about abortion rights or abortion access. And the following question is, do you think the co-optedness-- I guess that's a word-- of the term "reproductive"-- Co-optation, I think, is the word.
Co-optation, all right. Thank you. [LAUGHS] Do you think that a co-optation has improved the future of the movement, and why or why not? Well, I think that there's always a risk of all of our creations being what I call Elvis-ed. You know, whatever Black people create, Elvis-- an Elvis comes along and monetizes it and claims that they created it, and then they want to do something different with it. But I actually don't spend a lot of time having that fight with the pro-choice movement.
I actually think the term "pro-choice" is a great term for conveying the struggle for abortion, so I don't see why they're sun-setting a working term so that they can pretend to believe in reproductive justice just because they're trying to follow a trend or something. But if they're not going to use our criteria, we tend to offer a push-back. Matter of fact, we created those criteria in 2005 because there were so many attempts to co-opt it and water it down. And in my mind-- that's why my third book was called Radical Reproductive Justice. They were trying to de-radicalize the term. Because it does appear that pungent critique of neoliberal capitalism, white supremacy, and population control.
So if you're not seeing those as foundational to reproductive justice, then it's not reproductive justice in our eyes. But I don't spend a lot of time fighting with them because I do antifascist work, and they're problematic allies, and I try to keep my eyes on the actual enemies. I hear that 100%, and thank you so much for that answer. The next question that we have submitted for you tonight is, again, about the current generation of reproductive justice advocates and allies. Are there qualities within us that you admire? And then, on the flip side, are there things you wish that we would be doing better to promote reproductive justice? What I offer as a critique of generations that have come along since, I mean, I'm almost 70 years old, so I've had a-- and I've been doing this work for 50 years, so I've got a long time to look at it because I started out at 16 myself, so I remember when I was mouthy and insufferable and thought I knew everything.
[LAUGHS] So I remember all of that, but I don't want to be a scold. So the thing that I'm most concerned about in the upcoming generations is the way that they spend too much time calling each other out instead of unifying strategically and facing forward against a common enemy. And so we try to-- they seem to believe that if people don't perfectly 100% align with their thinking about how the work should be done, then they should call each other out for not using the right word, not knowing the latest lexicon, not getting a gender pronoun right, not-- I mean, all of that stuff is-- can be fixed, but not if we weaponize against each other while we are being overrun by fascists. And so, in the 70s we used to call it trashing or the circular firing squad, where we're too busy taking each other out so that we're not actually facing outward and firing and that kind of thing. And so I could wish that succeeding generations had the outward unity.
Because from the civil rights movement to the early days of Black women in the feminist movement, we had our fights and stuff, but we knew when to strategically collaborate, to face outward towards the people who were creating the most problems for ourselves. And I think that's been lost because we're spending a lot of time in horizontal hostility with each other, and I'm not sure how that strengthens our movement. Thank you for that. And I think that you touched a bit on the following question, but do you believe that there are any foundational cultural ideals that impede the progress of the RJ movement today? Are there any what? Foundational cultural ideals within the United States.
Foundational cultural ideals. Well, I think the primary foundation of cultural ideal's ubuntu. We-- RJ is based on that ancient African philosophical situation, so I consider that foundational.
I think that-- for example, the way that we survived the enslavement was to have poly-parent households. The way that now they're talking about it like it's something new. We're like, ain't that how we got through what we've done for the last 400 years in this country? And so there are some foundational cultural things that have kept us alive and allowed us to thrive. And first of all, it's because we believe fundamentally in mutual human interdependence predating the whole human rights framework.
Like I said, the whole approach of believing your relationship to others is based on realizing that I am because we are, and that basically means I can't even have a self definition without being embedded in a family, a community of people, all those things that are necessary for me to be able to define myself and find myself. And the other foundational aspect of ubuntu is also the foundation of restorative and transformative justice, where you seek accountability in a way that doesn't replicate the prison industrial complex. So I see our foundational concepts everywhere if you know what you're looking for. 100%.
Thank you so much for that. The following question is-- it's a long one. With the perceived awareness of social justice issues and racial inequities heightened during this pandemic, are there any methods or modes you would suggest to advance the reproductive justice movement using that momentum? The pandemic? I don't understand the question. Let me just now try to fake the funk.
I didn't quite get the question. That is totally fine. So people are noticing that it appears as if folks are-- they have this heightened social awareness and this heightened awareness of racial inequities in this country, especially now that we're in a pandemic, quarantining for the most part. So are there any methods or modes you'd suggest to advance reproductive justice right now, using that momentum? Well, I think the pandemic has done nothing if not expose our vulnerability because of the health disparities that pre-exist in the system, the fact that we've had to redefine who's an essential worker away from Wall Street and down to the Amazon delivery workers.
Because that-- those are the ones that have kept life alive. They're the ones, the doctors and the trash people and all of that. I think we're going to revalue schoolteachers after the pandemic, not be so dismissal of their need for more money so that they're paid better and they can stop buying supplies out of their own pockets and stuff like that. But fundamentally, I think we're going to need a new social contract that includes things like I mentioned before, health care, education, welfare, support for vulnerable people like senior citizens and children, and free childcare and stuff like that. All of that austerity program that was deconstructed under neoliberalism is now what we urgently need to be restored.
And so I think, after 50 years of flirting with government destruction, I think the American public is ready for us to say, OK, now we need to see what government is supposed to be doing right now. Because that experiment didn't work, not that all of us believed in it in the first place, that rich people were going to get all these tax breaks and trickle down those benefits to the rest of us. We didn't believe that myth anyway, but now I think a larger swath of the American public has been disabused of that perception. And so our interdependence emotionally, because I think we miss human contact and all of that, our interdependence socially, our interdependence economically has been thrown into sharp relief.
So we're going to have to rebuild a social contract into-- instead of the pre-existing racial contract that we have, that philosophers like Charles Mills describes. Thank you so much for that answer. Along with the heightened awareness of racial inequities and social inequities, kind of pivoting into talking about incarcerated folks, what can be done around reproductive injustice among folks who are incarcerated during COVID-19? Well, we, of course, as reproductive justice activists, have been centering people who are incarcerated in our lens from the minute we created the framework. This was not something that we were neglecting because we have such a disproportionate amount of the Black population incarcerated. These are our families. These are our brothers, our sisters, our aunts, our uncles, our fathers, and stuff.
And then there's also been the increasing criminalization of immigrants and refugees. Because I am partnering with someone to do some work who was a Vietnamese refugee whose father was incarcerated once he came to this country and has been serving an extraordinarily long sentence for survival crimes like other people get incarcerated for. And so we led a campaign, and we're still working on this campaign, for example, to end unnecessary shackling of women when they're giving birth.
We had a campaign both-- we have a continuing campaign to end sterilization abuse under state custody. So this ICE detention scandal is just the latest because there's always been reproductive management of people who are incarcerated not at their own consent. And what we-- Human Rights Watch, I think, in about 2008, 2009 talked about how scandalous it was that even in a-- under a country that purported to be against abortion was forcing abortion on women who were incarcerated because they were being impregnated by prison guards. And so we've always had to draw attention to those things.
And even if you have the nominally correct, neutral policies on the books, you have to monitor that they get enforced in a way that's neutral because they're using-- they're enforced in a very racially specific way. And so this is the work we do, is to center vulnerable people in our lens and pay close attention. There was a situation out in California where if women didn't give consent, mostly Black, brown, Native American women, if they didn't give consent to being sterilized, that the prison authorities would withhold visitation of visits from their children and threaten them with that kind of thing.
And that's a major reproductive injustice. So this is what we do. Thank you. All of that was pre-COVID.
And then COVID just made it worse. 100%. So can you speak to us a little bit about your work with prisoners against rape? And for the people who might be in roles that traditionally stand in the way of reproductive justice, what role should they have in the reproductive justice movement, and what is the importance of their involvement? That's two questions, isn't it? Can we separate it? Sorry. It's a two-part question. Of course.
Sorry for that. So for the first half, can you speak to us a little bit about your work with prisoners against rape? Yes. In 1979, I became the director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center.
And at the time there was a program called Prisoners Against Rape that we hadn't quite acted on. We'd gotten this letter from a man named William Fuller, who was incarcerated-- a Black man who was incarcerated in Lorton Reformatory. And he wrote us this letter that said, "Outside I raped women. Inside, I rape men. And I'd like not to be a rapist anymore."
And this letter landed like a bomb in the middle of the Rape Crisis Center because our first immediate reaction was revulsion. Wait a minute. We barely have enough money to take care of rape victims.
How in the world are the perpetrators asking us for help now? And we were all survivors doing this work who were-- like myself, I was not healed, and I did not think that I wanted to go talk to a Black man who had raped and murdered a Black woman. I mean, it just was unfathomable for me. But eventually we took our courage in our hands, and we drove that 20 miles to Lorton Reformatory, because it was in Lorton, Virginia, outside of D.C.
And it was pretty shocking for me at first because, first of all, I had never been in a prison before, so the indignities you go through, you just get searched to get into a prison, was deep. I mean, really-- well, I've gotten that kind of search before now-- now, since 9/11, in TSA invasions of my life, but in 1979 I wasn't ready for the body and cavity searches that they put you through when you're a civilian going into a prison. And then when I got to this room that William Fuller had organized, there were these six big brawny men looking like MMA fighters. And it wasn't-- and I was scared of them.
Here, I was just me by