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Women in Combat: Lifting the ban sheds light on Military Sexual Trauma

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

During times of war, women, who felt qualified, volunteered to serve their country.  Women of all races have been fighting, killing, and dying in wars throughout the ages. The collective histories of these women are often unrewarded. Many of these women fought for equality in the armed forces despite sexual violence and gender discrimination. African American women have served, in spite of sexual violence, racial and gender discrimination. Despite their tripartite oppression, African American women are a critical source of new recruits in the U.S. Military. According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the heroism and gallantry of these patriotic women are “contributing in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission of defending this nation…They serve, they’re wounded and they die right next to each other. The time has come to recognize that reality.” It appears that their sacrifices will not be in vain.

Earlier this year, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban that denied women equality in combat roles. By lifting the ban, women can now serve in the estimated 200,000 combat positions in the armed forces (www.defense.gov). According to Panetta, “If members of our military can meet the qualifications for a job, then they should have the right to serve, regardless of creed, color, gender or sexual orientation.”  The decision to lift the ban, which will not be fully implemented until 2016, will allow up to 14 percent of women in the United States Military to fulfill jobs officially termed “combat”.  This is a significant victory for women in the armed forces, and for African American women in particular. Determined to serve, African American women are well represented in the U.S. Military. According to the 2011 New York Times article entitled Black Women Enlisting at Higher Rates in the US Military, a study by the Pew Research Center found that “of the 167,000 enlisted women in the military, 31 percent are Black, twice their percentage in the civilian female population…White women, by comparison, represent 53% of women in the military, while accounting for 78 percent of the civilian female population.” The lifting of the ban by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Panetta acknowledges the significant roles women have played in the U.S. Military, in general, and African American women, in particular. Yet, it fails to adequately address the sexual violence women experience in the armed forces by their fellow soldiers.

While the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Panetta have taken actions to guarantee women are granted a more equal role in the military, a point that needs emphasizing is that they have failed to reduce the frequency of sexual assaults and rapes of women in the military. Rape and sexual assault of women is so rampant, that the Department of Veteran Affairs refers to the experiences as Military Sexual Trauma (MST).  Military Sexual Trauma is defined by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs as “psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a VA mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the Veteran was serving on active duty or active duty for training.”

According to the Military Rape Crisis Center website (http://militaryrapecrisiscenter.org/) in March 2013, “The United States Coast Guard Academy reports 10% of all female cadet’s experienced unwanted sexual contact, a 2% increase from the previous year.”  In 2012, the Service Women’s Action Network website  reported that “30% of homeless women veteran VHA users screened positive for MST, in 2010 alone, as well as 108,121 veterans screened positive for MST, and 45.7% of these survivors were men.”  Not to mention, the Department of Defense believes that the actual number of sexual assaults is highly underreported; the actual numbers are closer to 19,000 assaults annually. If the Department of Defense is right, then it is undeniable that they are not taking a strong enough position to protect women in the United States armed forces from rape, sexual assault, and/or sexual harassment at the hands of the very men they stand beside in the armed forces. According to the Feministe website, in a 2010 article entitled, Class Action Against U.S. Military On Behalf of Sexual Assault Survivors, “over 90% of all females that report sexual assault are discharged from the military before their contract ends. From the 90%, around 85% are discharged against their wishes.” Often these women are discharged and are unable to receive VA benefits and mental health services for MST.

My own view is that the effort of Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Secretary to increase women’s combat roles is being taken, at least in part, to help reduce the frequency of sexual assault on women in general, and African American women, in particular.  As I searched the web, I was unable to find statistics on the racial breakdown of women who are sexually assaulted. Yet, we know that Black women are a large part of the Armed Forces, thus, they represent a large percentage of the rapes and sexual assaults in the military. By lifting the ban, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Department of Defense hope that as women move up in rank and file in the military, the odds of rape and sexual assault will decrease.  There is some evidence to suggest that this effort will be effective. According to a report by Anne Sandler et.al in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine entitled Factors Associated with Women’s Risk of Rape in the Military Environment, states “For a respondent to be one of the first women to perform a traditionally male job, nearly doubled the odds of rape overall” among women who served in the armed forces before the Persian Gulf War (PGW). However, for PGW-era veterans, being one of the first women to perform a traditionally male job was associated with lower odds of rape (0.75 for PGW vs. 3.0 for prior eras).”  Although this evidence seems promising, the U.S. Military will need to do more to eliminate sexual violence, gender and racial discrimination of women in the military.

It is my hope that lifting the ban will lead to a revolutionary shift in consciousness that will help men see women as equals, and in turn, reframe the military culture. Although I agree that gender neutral combat roles is a step in the right direction, I not sure that signing a bill is going to be enough.  I am not convinced that by allowing the large number of women in the military to serve in front line combat positions and potentially elite commando roles will create shared experiences and camaraderie that will stop men from raping, sexually assaulting, and/or sexually harassing women in general, and Black women in particular. We must require the U.S. military to do more. The brave women who serve the United States should not return home suffering from Military Sexual Trauma. We must also consider the broader effects of allowing military women to return to schools, churches, businesses, and communities suffering from the psychological trauma of Military Sexual Trauma. Are we prepared to live in world with thousands of women veterans suffering from combat trauma and the psychological trauma of MST? As a society, we must require the U.S. Military to articulate, implement and enforce standards that will eliminate all the unnecessary gender based barriers women experience in the military. The U.S. Military must cultivate a culture where the majority of women in the military can serve our country without the fear of being raped, sexually assaulted, and/or sexually harassed by a fellow soldier. As a country, we must show great courage, strength, and determination to make our armed forces safe for all soldiers. It is time for America to realize that both women and men are equally responsible for this country, and that it is our duty to protect and serve the men and women who sign up to fight for this country.

Aundrea Matthews
Ph.D. Candidate, Religious Studies
Area of Study: Religion & Theology of the African Diaspora, Race and Identity/Culture

Rethinking NO Child Left Behind Act: States are the Problem

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

Fifty-nine years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, forty-nine years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, and a decade after the signing of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), racial achievement gaps between African American and Latino males and white, non-Latino males are alarming. According to the 2012 Schott Foundation report The Urgency of Now, “only 53% of Black males and 58% of Latino males graduate from high school in four years, while 78% of white, non-Latino males graduate in four years.”   In the same report, the Schott Foundation found that, since the signing of NCLB, Black male graduation rates went from 42% in 2001-2 to 52% in 2009-10, Latino rates increased from approximately 46% to 58%, and white, non-Latino graduation rate went from 71% to 78%. This made me wonder, does No Child Left Behind work?

There are mixed opinions of NCLB among parents, educators, politicians, and within communities across America. On the one hand, proponents of the NCLB assert that states have made progress in reducing the racial achievement gaps between African Americans and Latinos and white, non-Latinos. They argue that NCLB requires schools and districts to focus their attention on the academic achievement of traditionally under-served groups of children, and hold States and school districts accountable for taking federal money and failing to educate all students.  On the other hand, opponents of the NCLB assert that NCLB allows States to under fund Title I programs, thus, destroying public education.  They contend that most states and districts that lead with a status-quo standards-based reform agenda (standardized testing) have yet to implement state- or district-wide policies that allow educators to provide adequate learning environments for African Americans and Latinos (support-based reform) that are equal to the support of white, non-Latinos. Others argue that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization bill enacted by President Obama’s administration fails to address many of the NCLB’s fundamental flaws and in some cases will make them worse. Although I agree that there has been some increase in graduation rates across the board, the reality is that nearly half of the 1.2 million students who fail to graduate are African American and Latino, and that there are approximately 20 cities contributing to almost 80% of that dropout rate.  So, this raises the question are the cities/states responsible or NCLB and ESEA? In my opinion, it’s the states/cities that are at fault.

The NCLB and ESEA program known as ‘Title I’ directly affects most African American and Latino students. Title I provides federal funds to States serving low-income students to help them provide the best education for their students. It is my view that NCLB and ESEA works for cities and school districts that use NCLB and ESEA Title I funding, combined with State and local funds, to implement support-based reform for African American and Latino children in Title I schools. For example, support based- reform includes providing students with advising, counseling, and academic support intervention programs, etc. that ensure students are successful.  The NCLB and ESEA doesn’t work when states and school districts have large gaps in achievement rates between Title I schools and non-Title I schools, and deny educators Title I funding on the local and/or state level for support based reform. For instance, in cities and school districts where there aren’t wide gaps of per-pupil expenditures among non-Title I schools and Title I schools, the state and local funds contribution to NCLB and ESEA are relatively modest.  Thus, the funding these States received from the federal government , in support of NCLB and ESEA,  was enough to cover the added expense necessary to adhere to the new law-No Child Left Behind.

The combination of NCLB and ESEA Title I funds and state and local funds allows these states and school districts to implement innovative support based reforms that provide educators with the resources and funding they need to reduce the gaps between white, non-Latino education/support and African American and Latino education/support.  As a result, these states and school districts have made progress in closing the gaps between African American, Latino, and white students. On the other hand, in cities where there are high poverty rates, educators are denied state and local funding, and the gaps between non- Title I funding and Title I funding are wide, NCLB and ESEA does not work.  For instance, Houston, Texas is just one city that is contributing to that 80% dropout rate in the United States.  The State of Texas has been awarded nearly 2.1 billion dollars to implement the No Child Left Behind and approximately $1.3 billion in Title I funding. Yet, according to the Department of Education, there is a 24% spending difference between Title I schools and non-Title I schools in Houston, Texas, and a 253% poverty rate difference between Title I and non-Title I schools in Houston.   As a result , in 2009/10 in Houston, Texas, the African American graduation rate was roughly 40% compared to an estimated 73% graduation rate for white, non-Latino males. Despite these alarming numbers, Governor Rick Perry is unwilling to use state and local funds to pay for the necessary expenses to close the gaps between affluent school s and disadvantaged schools.  The Texas legislature cut and restructured the part of the funding that is constitutionally required, and have denied educators equitable and adequate funding for public education. Hence, educators don’t have the funding and resources to implement a support-based reform agenda to meet the needs of all Texas students as well as the growing student population in Title I schools. According to the Department of Education, “If Title I schools do not receive levels of state and local funding that are comparable to those in other schools (non-Title I schools) in the same district, then the federal investment in Title I may not in fact ensure that such schools have the level of resources needed to help address the greater challenges they face.”

Due to the mandates within NCLB and ESEA, cities like Houston are now under pressure to justify why they took Title I funding from the federal government and have failed, for a decade, to ensure that no child was left behind.  Instead of admitting their neglect, these states and school districts took the easy way out by simply labeling African American and Latino students that are incapable of meeting the status-quo standardized testing reform agenda, as “bad”, “slow”, “unwilling to learn”, “ADHD/ADD”, and/or criminal. Taking a deeper look at the situation, it is evident States and school districts that refuse to provide services to Title I schools from state and local funds that are at least comparable to services in non-Title I schools  are prohibiting African American and Latinos from receiving the same education as white, non-Latinos. According to a Department of Education policy brief, if states would raise  “low-spending to Title I and higher poverty schools up to the average funding levels in more advantaged schools it would help ensure that Title I funds are supplementing a truly comparable base of state and local resources in our nation’s schools and fulfilling the purpose of federal education funding.”

The time has come for us to critically examine how certain States undermine federal efforts, and contribute to the high dropout rates among African Americans and Latinos. If we do, I think we will learn that it is just a few States that are abusing the system, and undermining federal funding effort s of public education for all students. The time has come for us to stop believing the African American and Latino children are incapable of learning, and that some children will always be left behind.  The truth is that only some states are the problem, and that they are grossly misusing federal funds to undermine NCLB and ESEA efforts.  We must hold these states accountable for their negligence, because we can live in a society, where no Child is left behind.

Aundrea Matthews
Ph.D. Candidate, Religious Studies
Area of Study: Religion & Theology of the African Diaspora, Race and Identity/Culture

Texas Affirmative Action Case: Race Matters

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Aundrea Matthews is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Rice University with a special interest in religion and theology of the African Diaspora, as well as race and identity/culture. She can be contacted at alm2@rice.edu.

The recent conversation surrounding Fisher v. University of Texas-Austin (UT-Austin) reflects the classic controversy surrounding the legitimacy of affirmative action in college enrollment. The case, brought by Abigail Fisher after she was denied admission to UT-Austin, questions the use of race as one among a suite of characteristics and experiences that admissions staff can use to create a college cohort. At its core, the problem is how should the quarter of the incoming freshman class who were not guaranteed admission by being in the top 10 percent of their high-school class be selected? There are more qualified students than spaces in the freshman class, which means the university must develop ways of selecting these students. Those who are against affirmative action generally argue UT-Austin is practicing discrimination by its consideration of race in their admission practices. They think UT-Austin should not consider race to determine a quarter of incoming freshman classes as an attempt to make the university diverse. Groups siding with UT-Austin argue that using race as one category among many is necessary to ensure diversity on college campuses and equal educational opportunity and access for all minorities. UT contends that if a student is not granted admission to UT-Austin under the top 10 percent rule, then a holistic review process that requires other factors are taken into account, including race. University of Texas President Bill Powers said a ruling against Texas “would be a setback for the university and society.” So, I asked myself, does race matter in the college admissions process, and if it does, should it matter?

Most colleges and universities are dealing with wide disparities between white student graduation rates and minority student graduation rates. For instance, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported in 2006 that “the overall nationwide college graduation rate for black students was at 43 percent compared to the 63% percentage rate for white students.” Within science, technology, engineering, and math the disparities widen. The Institute for Higher Education Policy reports that “within science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines—key areas for meeting nation workforce needs—the bachelor’s degrees completion gaps are even wider than overall: nearly 70 percent for whites compared to 42 percent African Americans, and 49 percent for Hispanics.” Studies like these suggest that the relatively low college graduation rates generally and in STEM fields particularly among minorities will have an impact on American workforce needs and global competitiveness. In a report entitled “Education Supports Racial and Ethnic Equality in STEM,” data indicates “non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics have been consistently underrepresented in STEM jobs over the past decade.” This report argues that it is important to “enable and encourage equitable access to premium education which is critical to ensuring that America maintains a wide and diverse source of STEM professionals that help to advance U.S. innovation and global competiveness.”

The long-term implications are hard to ignore when one looks at the changing demography of Texas. In the 2011 Hechinger Report “Minorities Are Now the Majority at UT-Austin,” Steve Murdock, Rice University sociologist and director of the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas, notes that “in order to continue supplying the number of college-educated workers needed at a time when white population growth has been flat for 20 years, the nation’s universities will have to educate far more non-whites. But they may not be ready to do so.” Murdock and others suggest that this is a national issue and Murdock said in “just 13 years from now we’re going to have a school system nationally in which a majority of the children are something other than non-Hispanic whites. This is not a Texas issue. It’s not a California issue. It’s a national issue. And how well we deal with it will determine how well we remain competitive economically.”

The research cited here suggests that providing equal and excellent education to a diverse group of college students is increasingly urgent. The Fisher case, if upheld by the Supreme Court, would make this task much more difficult. Yet there are few suggestions to fix the growing educational crisis in America. Importantly, universities that consider race in their holistic review process in admissions have surpassed national graduation rates. Harvard University, traditionally one of the nation’s strongest supporters of affirmative action, has the highest black graduation rates in the United States, graduating 95 percent. This suggests that considering race has an overall salutary effect on minority access to higher education. In the context of UT-Austin and the Fisher case, State Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) said “the issue of race continues to be linked with opportunity in Texas and our country” and “We cannot just pretend that the legitimate progress made in the last several decades means equality of opportunity has been achieved and on more action needs to be taken.” If the Fisher case overturns UT-Austin policies, it will impede student diversity on the campuses of some of the most prestigious universities in America. As a result, America may become less competitive in the global market. In protecting access for qualified minorities to higher education, race certainly matters, and will continue to matter regardless of the outcome in the Fisher case.