By Camille Landry (Program Coordinator)
The United States is a contradiction. From the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution to the Statue of Liberty beckoning the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the U.S. trumpets to the world – and does not hesitate to export at gunpoint – the ideals of democracy and freedom; yet, it is a nation that is also based upon the murderous oppression of Black, Indigenous and other peoples of color. The United States was born of Indigenous genocide and settler-colonialism, and African slavery, which included genocide and extractive colonialism, all driven by capitalism and the desire to exploit every natural and human resource for the fulfillment of greed and hegemony. These are not historical issues that have been overcome; they exist today in other no less deadly forms than their earlier iterations.
The last two years have uncovered the skeletons in America’s closet. By “America” we mean the American continent, but in no place is this reality more stark than in the United States of America. The Coronavirus pandemic exposed and exacerbated the systemic racism and fundamental inequalities experienced by African Americans and other people. In another chapter of our Human Rights Report, we examine issues specifically related to the pandemic. It’s important to note that the Coronavirus did not create these injustices; it merely cast a spotlight on them.
In the United States, issues of inequality and systemic racism are often addressed as civil rights issues. Simply put, civil rights are rights that one obtains by being a legal member of a certain political state. Human rights are rights one acquires by being alive. The historic period of struggle that Black people and their allies engaged in during the mid-20th century is called the Civil Rights Movement. Although many aspects of American slavery, Jim Crow, and the deeply rooted systemic racism that characterizes Black life in this country are uniquely American, these are not merely violations of Black people’s civil (e.g. legal, state-sanctioned) rights, but are also egregious and deadly violations of their basic human rights.
These violations of fundamental human rights belie the notion that the United States is “the land of the free.” Freedom in the United States is a privilege that accrues to white cisgender heterosexual males, with white cisgender females claiming the crumbs that patriarchy leaves behind.
This article examines key areas of inequality and the ongoing human rights violations that characterize Black life in the United States and constitute violations of basic human rights. Because we are addressing human rights and not merely civil rights violations, these violations are not merely internal matters to be addressed only by the governments, processes or people of the United States, but rather a crime against humanity that is properly addressed and adjudicated upon a world stage.
White supremacy: old horrors, new methods
It’s not a new concept; it’s a very old reality. White supremacy and racism are as foundational to this nation as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In fact, they pre-date nationhood. This third decade of the 21st century has seen numerous incidents of white terrorism and a steadfast refusal by political and social leaders to try to eradicate systemic racism in this country. The United States remains separate, unequal and actively engaged in violations of human rights.
The country has seen a visible resurgence of open white supremacy since the election of Barack Obama. Speech and behavior that for a brief time were considered socially and morally reprehensible – although remaining embedded in every institution, both public and private – have become acceptable and commonplace. The election of a Black president in 2008 signaled to some people a new chapter in U.S. political life and hope for the end of systemic racism, yet served to raise the ire of and mobilize people who hold fast to concepts of U.S. exceptionalism and the alleged inherent superiority of people of European descent.
White rage quickly morphs into white violence. The Trump presidency ramped up the rhetoric, deepened the racial divide, and encouraged flagrant racism. There were 7,759 reported hate crimes in the U.S. last year — the most in 12 years, the FBI reported. Many experts and advocacy groups say the true number is even higher. “The spike in 2020 follows a recent upward trend in bias incidents, and it was a six percent increase over 2019. Nearly two of every three hate crimes reported last year – 61.8% – were motivated by a bias against race, ethnicity or ancestry,” according to the FBI. Of all hate crimes, 36% were anti-Black or “anti-African-American.”
Yet, most people in this country cannot even agree on the state of race relations and racism in the United States. More than 40% of white people in the U.S. believe their country has made the changes necessary to give white and Black people equal rights. Only eight percent of Black people believe that significant progress has been made. Half of white people in the U.S. believe that discrimination is as bad against whites as it is against people of color. While a majority of people in the U.S. seem to understand that hard work does not guarantee success, a full 50% of whites believes that people of color would be more successful “if they only tried harder.”
Many in the United States will not even admit that racism exists. Conservatives often argue that systemic racism is a term designed to lay a guilt trip on white people and also explain away the continuing failure of Black people to take responsibility for their own inadequacies. To them, racism only matters when it is conscious and deliberate; racism that is unconscious, implicit, or institutional simply doesn’t count in their worldview. And as individualists, they think we are all masters of our own fate: if people are poor, it is basically their own fault. Therefore, systemic racism is an impossibility. Roughly six in 10 Republicans state that too much attention is paid to race these days.
Structural racism: violations fo social, economic and cultural rights
Racism is structural (i.e. systemic), not individual. The dictionary defines racism as prejudice directed against people because of their race, not because of an individual’s actions or other characteristics. This definition is simplistic and inaccurate. Racism is more accurately defined as a system of oppression based on race. It is created and reinforced by power differentials in which the oppressor holds power over the oppressed. Racism is systemic; that is, it is embedded in the laws, regulations, and practices of this society and its institutions, communities, and organizations. It manifests as discrimination in areas including criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, education, and political representation.
Structural racism pervades every aspect of life in the United States, rooted in centuries of oppression and fueled by a neocolonial, neoliberal imperialist state for whom violence is the first resort when its hegemony is threatened.
Racism involves the application of force, coercion and restriction of human and civil rights upon powerless people through systems of oppression. Systemic racism is perpetrated by the powerful upon the powerless. It defies the existence of “reverse racism.” Those who lack power cannot exercise control over or deny rights to those who enjoy the privilege of being among the controlling class.
Structural racism is intersectional – a concept that recognizes that all forms of oppression intersect to form systems of oppression. The Oxford Dictionary defines intersectionality as “the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”
The intersectionality of racism means that certain groups of people experience different forms and degrees of oppression. Racialized oppression is one form of racism, co-existing with other forms of oppression such as class oppression; gender-based oppression; and persecution of national, ethnic and religious minorities.
All forms of prejudice are oppressive, but not all forms of it are equally consequential. Those that beget structural inequalities – as does oppression based on race, class, nationality, religion, gender, sexuality, and the intersection of these forms of discrimination – are very different in nature from prejudice based on factors such as age, appearance, or geography.
“When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, the Black community owned less than one percent of the United States’ total wealth. More than 150 years later, that number has barely budged,” writes Mehrsa Baradaran of Harvard University in her book The Color of Money.
African American people experience huge and pervasive inequalities in both income and wealth in the United States. Wealth is more important than income as a determinate of security and quality of life because it is an overarching factor indicating long-range status – unlike income, which can change significantly over time. On average, Black households own only 10% (around $17,000) of the wealth that the typical white family has ($171,000).
African American people started trying to amass wealth even before emancipation. People still trapped in chattel slavery hired themselves out, usually with a portion of their wages going to their “owners,” in an effort to build wealth. Their earnings were often used to purchase their loved ones from slaveholders. Most went on to purchase land and/or start businesses and establish schools, churches, and mutual aid societies to create thriving and sustainable communities, despite the hardships and drawbacks that accompany being Black in the United States.
Many established Black townships or districts where residents could escape the depredations of Jim Crow segregation and white supremacy by creating their own communities. Oklahoma alone had more than 20 Black towns and dozens of successful Black neighborhoods. Tulsa’s Greenwood District is well known even today as an icon of Black social and economic success that succumbed to murderous white rage. For several decades these all-Black towns provided their residents with lives free of the regular racial brutality and prejudice often experienced by Blacks living in racially mixed communities. Residents could depend upon and support each other. Black-owned farms, schools, and businesses took root.
Many of these communities were destroyed by white rioters (Tulsa’s Greenwood; Elaine, Arkansas; Greenwood, Florida; Chicago’s African American district; and many more). Others succumbed to government-sponsored economic terrorism: redlining, discriminatory lending policies and practices, de facto and de jure segregation, income and wealth disparities, the Great Depression, two World Wars and numerous U.S. wars of aggression that conscripted African Americans, coupled with the Great Migration of Black people to the industrial North and to California, along with the transition of the U.S. from a predominately rural to an overwhelmingly urban society – all of which contributed to the demise of these thriving Black communities.
The Coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the wealth gap and thus Black households’ financial security. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Black households were left without the safety margin that wealth provides. Black people faced unemployment and multiple health emergencies, yet many had few or no emergency savings to fall back on during this time. More than 65% of unemployed Black households lacked access to $400 in savings; only 46% of white households faced the same challenges.
These issues illustrate the systemic injustice that is inherent in the United States and largely the direct result of government actions and policies. This is clearly evident in patterns of housing. For most people in the U.S., homeownership represents the majority of their wealth; it is passed down from one generation to the next. Many local, state and federal housing policies mandated segregation, prevented Black people from becoming homeowners and diminished the value of the property that Black people managed to purchase. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which was established in 1934, furthered the segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African American neighborhoods – a policy known as “redlining.” At the same time, the FHA was subsidizing builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions for whites – with the requirement that none of the homes be sold to African Americans. Taxpayers actively subsidized homeownership; and homeowners received tax credits for mortgage interest, while renters received no such subsidy.
The federal government manipulates currency in ways that work against the interests of poor and working class people, thus increasing the wealth gap. The Washington Post reports:
“It is no coincidence the rich began getting so much richer as globalization exerted downward pressure on wages and deregulated financial innovation increased opportunities for capital gains. A side effect of low interest rates, engineered by the Federal Reserve with the goal of stimulating the broader economy, has been to reduce the costs and raise the benefits of speculation. […] It is still remarkable – and concerning – that wealth inequality grew during the pandemic. Of $13.5 trillion in new household wealth added during 2020, more than 70% accrued to the top fifth of income earners, and about a third to the top one percent.”
The intersection of structural racism with class oppression in the U.S. has created a maelstrom of misery and oppression in African American communities and people. Taken as a whole, it represents a massive abuse of human rights.
Discrimination in policing and the criminal justice system
The 2020 murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police galvanized the nation and prompted people all over the world to protest police brutality against Black people in the United States. Millions of people took to the streets. The sheer brutality and injustice of these deaths, one of which played out on screens throughout the world, gave impetus to dialogue about racial injustice on a level not seen in this nation since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Despite the mobilization of masses of people and multiple gestures toward amelioration of racism by government entities, mass media and corporations (many of which consisted chiefly of urgings to avoid violence in pursuit of racial justice), there have been few, if any, substantive changes in the systemic racism that pervades the United States.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the incidence of murders of Black people by law enforcement. Police violence is a leading cause of death for young men in the U.S. Over the life course, about one in every 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by police. Black women and men and Indigenous and Alaska Native women and men are significantly more likely than white women and men to be killed by police. Latino men are also more likely to be killed by police than are white men, according to the National Academy of Sciences.
As horrific as those statistics are, the reality is even worse: more than 55% of all deaths from police violence in the U.S. may go unreported.
- An assessment of deaths attributable to police violence in the United States concludes that more than half of all such killings are misclassified or misreported.
- The analysis finds that Black people are the most likely of all racial and ethnic groups to die as a result of police violence.
- The study authors conclude that militarized policing and systemic racism are largely to blame for the high numbers of such deaths.
The fear of violent encounters with the police and the ensuing stress can have negative consequences for the mental and physical health of those it affects. Some experts have referred to these stressors within the larger scheme of structural racism. The adverse mental health impact also has a “spillover” effect on other members of the community who are not directly affected. Researchers examined the effects that witnessing or hearing about the killing of a Black American have on white and Black Americans. They found that with each additional police killing of an unarmed Black American, Black respondents were more likely to report additional “poor mental health days.”
The purpose of terrorism is fear – and the terrorism of police murders of Black people certainly strikes fear into the hearts of African Americans and others frequently subjected to hate crimes and racialized discrimination. This fear is a tool for maintaining white supremacy and perpetuating oppression.
Criminology instructor Murat Haner and Associate Professor of Sociology Melissa Sloan report in “Race and worrying about police brutality: the hidden injuries of minority status in America” that while only 6.6% of whites “worry a lot” about police violence, some minorities experience much greater fear, with 32.4% of Blacks and 26.5% of Latines reporting they “worry a lot” about becoming victims of police violence. Conversely, three-fourths of whites “do not worry at all” about officer violence, while only one-third of minority respondents “do not worry at all” about police brutality.
This fear permeates every aspect of Black life in the U.S. Black parents have “The Talk” with their children – instructions on how to interact with police to avoid getting shot. “Speak calmly and politely. Keep your hands visible – on the steering wheel or in the air. Ask permission before reaching into your pocket or book bag or glove compartment for your ID. If someone is with you, ask them to record your encounter with police. Don’t get agitated if the police are rough or rude with you.” Black families worry about whether their sons and daughters will return home unscathed after such innocent activities as buying candy at the corner store, jogging through the park, or waiting for friends at Starbucks – all for good reason, as hardly a week goes by without viewers being treated to yet another video of police brutalizing innocent Black children, men and women.
One parent reported:
“Over the years, fears of my son falling victim to violence, at the hands of police or criminals, influenced a very rigid approach to parenting during his high school years that I’m not proud of. Throughout his high school years, I drilled my sons with rhetorical questions that were set-ups for my weekly diatribes: do you REALLY know if your friends carry drugs? Because if YOU’RE riding in a car together and get pulled over, only ONE of you has a rich parent to bail you out. Ultimately, my fixation with protecting my son’s body and reputation meant that he missed out on far too many formative high school experiences.”
Terrorism of this sort against innocent civilians including children is one of the most egregious and unconscionable violations of human rights.
Mass incarceration is mass elimination. Two centuries of evidence documenting the long rise of incarceration in the United States leaves no other interpretation. Incarceration operates as a means of purging, removing, caging, containing, erasing, disappearing, and eliminating targeted populations from land, life, society and power in the United States. It creates an underclass of people forever marginalized and powerless. It is a violation of a fundamental human right: the right to be free.
The U.S. locks up a higher percentage of its population than any other so-called democracy in the world. The U.S. criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 2,850 local jails, 186 immigration detention facilities, and 82 Indian Country jails – as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories. “The land of the free” is actually “the land of the cage.” It should come as no surprise that Black people and other people of color are disproportionately victimized by the U.S. carceral system.
Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, describes a caste-like system in the United States that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to permanent second-class status – denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement.
The carceral system is heavily impacted by the bias of police mentality, says the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well as by outdated judicial precedents. “It is largely driven by racial disparities, which directly obstruct and deconstruct our communities.”
In every way that Black people encounter law enforcement or criminal justice systems in the U.S., injustice and human rights violations occur:
- A Black person is five times more likely to be stopped without just cause than a white person.
- A Black man is twice as likely to be stopped without just cause than a Black woman.
- 65% of Black adults have felt targeted because of their race. (Similarly, more than 35% of Latine and Asian adults have felt targeted because of race.)
These grim statistics apply to Black youth as well as adults. Despite a 75% reduction in juvenile arrests since 1990, Black and Indigenous youth are still arrested and incarcerated at far higher rates than white youth. Black teenagers remained about twice as likely to be arrested for a drug offense and three times more likely to be arrested overall. As in other aspects of the justice system, racial disparities grow worse at each step; disparate arrest rates are amplified when it comes to incarceration, with Black youth 6.4 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth. Of note, the incarceration rates of Indigenous youth are even more oppressive: Indigenous youth are much more likely to be incarcerated than other races.
For Black youth, the school-to-prison pipeline is a grim reality. It began in deep social and economic inequalities and has taken root in the historic shortcomings of schooling in this country. The “zero-tolerance” policies that today are the most extreme form of a punishment paradigm disproportionately applied to BIPOC children were originally written for the so-called War on Drugs in the early 1980s and later applied to schools. The resulting extraordinary rates of suspension and expulsion are linked nationally to increasing police presence, checkpoints, and surveillance inside schools, which has caused an explosive increase in arrests and detainment of Black youth, some as young as three years old.
The growth of the school-to-prison pipeline is part of a larger crisis. Since 1970, the U.S. prison population has exploded from about 325,000 people to more than 2 million today. According to Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow), this is a phenomenon that cannot be explained by crime rates or drug use. Human Rights Watch states that although whites are more likely to violate drug laws than people of color, in some states Black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates 20 to 50 times greater than those of white men. Latine, Indigenous, and other people of color are also imprisoned at rates far higher than their representation in the population. Once released, former prisoners are caught in a web of laws, regulations, fines and discrimination – much of it legal – that make it difficult or impossible to secure jobs, education, housing, and public assistance, and often to vote or serve on juries. Alexander calls this permanent second-class citizenship a new form of segregation.
We must confront the human rights catastrophe taking place in our jails and prisons. The contemporary U.S. practice of super-incarceration is closer to new-age slavery than to any recognizable system of “criminal justice.” The biases that criminalize communities of color and politically disenfranchise huge segments of the minority electorate in the process constitute a massive violation of human rights. Our carceral system and the fundamentally racist institutions and practices that sustain it must be abolished. The Oxford Dictionary defines cisgender as “denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.”
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