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Masculinity and Violence

AUTHOR’s NOTE: Because I want to get this blog started again, before I start writing I would like to add a few blogs from my university Gender and Conflict class blog. This one was written on Dec. 21, 2012.
Since the horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, there has been much discussion about gun control, and especially an emphasis on mental illness and how an unstable mental state drives people to commit horrible crimes. However, there is little or no discussion about the type of people that commit these crimes: mainly white males.
The reason that masculinity needs to be discussed is because violence has become a legitimate and in some cases, only method for men to assert power over others. Judy Hilkey argues in A History of Gender in America that during the Gilded age, masculinity was transformed from the traditional role as “protector” and “breadwinner” of the family to a more success and power-driven role. Additionally, by placing manhood rather than wealth as the ultimate marker of success, argues Hilkey, this gave middle and working-class men the ability to establish themselves, as men, as the ultimate judge of his masculinity. Wealth remains to this day a mark of success; however,  this age is when the idea of power and masculinity as a form of success was born. Violence can be a valid means of achieving this success – it has historically been a valid and in fact honorable means of achieving power. In many cases, this power was achieved through bravery in war; however, realistically we know that power can also be achieved on a smaller scale, through a man-to-man brawl, gang violence, violence against partners, or even (could it be?) violence against large groups of innocent people.
We need to answer the question “why is violence such an integral part of what it means to be a man in American society?” This question of masculinity and violence is not of course, the only important problem to address. American society would greatly benefit from easier access to mental health and more regulations on firearms. But the United States also sees between 93,000 to 3 million cases of domestic violence per year, and over 10,000 gun deaths per year. I think we can all agree that this needs to change.
The trouble with crime perpetrated by men is that throughout life, men are excused for acting violently. From “boys will be boys” to “normal teenage brawl” to “men being unable to control themselves” society continues to make excuses and assume that this behavior is something that is “innately male.” But as soon as this behavior gets blown out of proportion, instead of looking at how masculinity shapes violent behavior, we are quick to say that that particular man was “mentally ill,” “crazy” or “disturbed.” But the fact of the matter is that ordinary men commit violence and sexual violence every day. We need to start talking about the role that violence plays in masculinity, and how we can change it.

Why the New Birth Control Regulation Falls Short

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Last week, President Obama came up with a new alternative to the rule for birth control coverage by religious institutions. Previously, the exemption only was available to religiously-affiliated employers who mainly cover those of their faith. However, the exemption has now been extended to religious companies and non-profits, or in fact any organization or company that “self-certifies that it meets these criteria and specifies the contraceptive services for which it objects to providing coverage.” This means that basically any company can refuse to cover birth control itself if they don’t want to provide it, whether they are religiously affiliated or not. These companies are still required to use their insurance or a third party to provide birth control, which is an important success. However, there are a few problems with this new regulation.

Several anti-birth control businesses and religious non-profits have already started complaining about how this still violates their “religious freedom” to discriminate against women and restrict their right to affordable, legal, pregnancy controlling medication. Whether or not there are loopholes in execution of this rule is yet to be seen. Further, as the Nation displays in their graphic, there is still a complete exemption for churches and houses of worship. And as the Daily Kos points out, the government’s response to religious outcry places an unfair barrier between birth control and the rest of health care coverage:

By setting up separate insurance plans for birth control coverage, the federal government is officially endorsing the idea that reproductive health care is separate from, you know, health care.[…] Such a concession to the religious organizations further stigmatizes women and their oh-so-mysterious body parts and accepts the inaccurate premise that there’s any validity to objections to basic health care on the grounds that Jesus wouldn’t like it.

Restricting birth control access to Americans and portraying birth control as anything other than legal, pregnancy controlling medication is not protecting religious freedoms of these companies (some of which aren’t even religious!) It is restricting the rights of an important group of hard-working, responsible Americans. Moreover, birth control is crucial to many women’s health, beyond its uses for preventing pregnancy. Giving in to the demands of these religious institutions is denying this basic truth, and displaying the abundance of male privilege in government. Widespread misunderstanding of the varying uses of birth control can only be explained by a lack of female representation.

Given the fact that access to birth control reduces rates of abortion (which most religious institutions abhor) there should be one thing that we all agree on. Regardless of what one’s personal (religious or not) choices are about birth control use, if women are going to have equal rights, and be expected by anti-choicers to be “responsible” about their sexual and reproductive lives, then we need to make it required for every employer to provide birth control to those who need it. And on the long term, we need to improve sexual education. End of story. No one should be able to convince us that their damaged understanding of “religious freedom” gives them the right to police or restrict the rights of others.

More Police in Schools Would Be Bad News for Black and Hispanic Students

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Along with several gun-regulating proposals, President Obama recently called for an increased presence of police officers on the streets, and an increased budget for law enforcement, in order to quell gun violence. Additionally, several groups, including the NRA, have expressed support for increased militarization of public schools. There is scant evidence that law enforcement has historically played a big role in stopping shootings. A study done by the Secret Service and the Department of Education following the Columbine shooting found that “[d]espite prompt law enforcement responses, most attacks were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.” Increased police presence, however, has shown correlation to increased arrest of students, especially students of color.

In 2011, a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics showed that due to implementation of zero-tolerance policies and increased militarization of schools, 68 percent of U.S. schoolchildren said police officers patrolled their school campuses, and more than half of students reported that locker checks were used as a security tactic.

“What we know is that when you put police in schools they arrest kids. And what they arrest them for is not the things which necessarily go to school safety.” (Jim Eichner, managing director of programs at Advancement Project)

More police  means more locker checks and heightened security; this leads to more arrests for drug crimes. Because African American and Hispanic students tend to “look suspicious,” these students are more likely targeted, especially for minor misbehaving. What’s more, the ACLU found that students of color are far more likely to be expelled or arrested for the same bad behavior as white students, and are punished more severely for behaviors that are less serious.

Getting arrested or expelled from school can have devastating consequences for a person’s future, and this is an issue that most white students just don’t have to deal with. African Americans make up 16 percent of the nation’s overall juvenile population, but the ACLU found that they accounted for 45 percent of juvenile arrests in 2003.

Why does this issue continue to remain unaddressed? Are we so afraid of young black and Hispanic men that we can’t face the truth that the data clearly shows? Despite the fact that the majority of habitual drug users are white, 45 percent of inmates in state prisons for drug offenses in 2009 were African American, and only 27 percent were white. The astonishing reality is that African American men have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison at some point in their lifetime. In fact, as Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow, since 1985, the prison population has increased by over 1000%, mainly because of crackdown on drug crime – the success of which can be traced to unfair targeting of young black and brown men. As though discrimination and profiling for misbehaving in high school isn’t enough, this blatant racism in our criminal justice system continues after high school. No matter where you look, African-American and Hispanic men tend to receive harsher sentences, are detained pretrial at higher rates, and imprisoned at higher rates in every age group, especially from ages 18-34, than whites.

We should applaud the President’s efforts to implement regulations on gun ownership. However, an increase in law enforcement in schools and on the streets is likely to increase the already devastating trend of school-to-prison path for people of color.  Let’s be realistic: Putting police officers in schools and increasing an already bulging budget for law enforcement probably isn’t going to do much to prevent shootings; however, it will ensure that our already unacceptable trend of unfair racial profiling continues.