Monday, March 17, 2014

Rohingya Blues & Sundown Town USA

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar detained in Malaysia 2013
During director Steve McQueen's recent acceptance speech for the Oscar for Best Picture for "12 Years a Slave" he cited a startling United Nation's International Labor Organization (ILO) statistic that there are currently 21 million people around the world living in a state of slavery, enforced labor or indentured servitude.

Last Tuesday the BBC's Ian-Muir Cochrane wrote an interesting article examining that figure and exploring the question of how many slaves there really are. It's a valid question.

But perhaps the bigger issue is not the exact number but the fact that there are human beings living in states of enforced labor at all fourteen years into the 21st century. People who can be found on just about every continent doing every kind of work imaginable.

Like the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims trapped in the Rakhine province of Myanmar.

Because the government of Myanmar has refused to grant them citizenship since 1948 (when this nation formerly known as Burma gained it's independence) this oppressed Muslim minority are not only unable to work, they also fall victim to violent attacks at the hands of Buddhist extremists and even the police and military.

Torture, beatings, arrests, torched homes and forced expulsion from villages have driven thousands of Rohingya to risk their lives to flee to Malaysia; which has a much larger Muslim population.

The harrowing journey takes the Rohingya through Thailand and over open seas through a treacherous route detailed by a New York Times article on Friday where they often fall victim to smugglers and human traffickers who frequently sell them into indentured labor working on fishing trawlers that ply the waters of the Gulf of Thailand, or as laborers on the mainland in Thailand or other Pacific nations.

Thousands of Rohingya have perished or been enslaved over the past few years. While it's critical to  attach some kind of number to that nightmarish trade in enforced human labor and misery, is it more important to quantify it, or back global efforts to put a stop to it?

Perhaps the point Steve McQueen was making in his Oscar speech is that if people were moved by his film that portrayed the story of one man's effort to escape human bondage - then people also need to be moved enough to demand an effort to end the global human trafficking that goes on here and now as well. What's the difference if it's 21,000 or 21 million really?

On another note, this past Saturday night I was scrolling through some Twitter links looking for interesting stories and saw this link to The about a recent Injustice Files television special on the Discovery Channel about the history of "Sundown Towns" in America by filmmaker Keith Beauchamp.

I like to imagine I'm a reasonably informed person, but I was pretty shocked to learn that Sundown Towns still exist in America today, where (depending on the town) black Americans, Asians of different nationalities, Hispanics or Jews are not welcome to live and are actually prevented from living.

Most of these places aren't in the south either; there are some though, like Vidor, Texas. Most are in northern, mid-western and Western cities and towns.

Some are close to major US cities. For example it's only very recently that some communities outside Detroit, Michigan like Dearborn Heights, or Grosse Points had people of color moving in as residents; they were once notorious Sundown Towns. (As in you better not be here when the sun goes down.)

That legacy still hovers today. Dearborn Heights is where 19 year-old African-American high-school graduate Renisha McBride was shot in the face and killed with a shotgun back in November, 2013 by 54-year-old resident Theordore Wafer after she knocked on his front door to ask for help in the early morning hours after she crashed her car nearby.

These segregated communities were the subject of a 2006 book by James Loewen titled "Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism". 

Rather than just be shocked about it I'm going to personally take a more positive approach and pick up a used copy of Loewen's book and read it to better understand this troubling aspect of American society which is none the less an important part of this nation's history.

One we should all know more about. Funny, I graduated from high school and college and the term Sundown Town was never mentioned in any class I ever attended or test I took.

But I guess knowledge isn't always pretty. As Albert Einstein said, "Any fool can know. The point is to understand." The latter is what I'm after.

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