Human Rights in Our Own Backyard: Injustice and Resistance in the United States

Human Rights in Our Own Backyard: Injustice and Resistance in the United States

Human Rights in Our Own Backyard: Injustice and Resistance in the United States

Human Rights in Our Own Backyard: Injustice and Resistance in the United States


Most Americans assume that the United States provides a gold standard for human rights--a 2007 survey found that 80 percent of U.S. adults believed that "the U.S. does a better job than most countries when it comes to protecting human rights." As well, discussions among scholars and public officials in the United States frame human rights issues as concerning people, policies, or practices "over there." By contrast, the contributors to this volume argue that many of the greatest immediate and structural threats to human rights, and some of the most significant efforts to realize human rights in practice, can be found in our own backyard.

Human Rights in Our Own Backyard examines the state of human rights and responses to human rights issues, drawing on sociological literature and perspectives to interrogate assumptions of American exceptionalism. How do people in the U.S. address human rights issues? What strategies have they adopted, and how successful have these strategies been? Essays are organized around key conventions of human rights, focusing on the relationships between human rights and justice, the state and the individual, civil rights and human rights, and group rights versus individual rights. The contributors are united by a common conception of the human rights enterprise as a process involving not only state-defined and implemented rights but also human rights from below as promoted by activists.


Judith Blau

Dictionaries define “enterprise” as “adventure” “undertaking” “resourceful” “energy” “pluck” “boldness” and “audacity.” It is in this spirit that the editors and authors of Human Rights In Our Own Backyard propose to advance our deep understanding of human rights. Even better—they also advance the sort of understanding that will encourage their readers to take action—to lobby, organize, and redirect the path of our communities and the nation. One of the strengths of this reader is that the editors and authors have subsumed the stalwarts of sociology—social problems, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, xenophobia, and class dominance—under the more generic term, human rights. This is a stunning achievement. It clarifies how parsimonious human rights principles—notably equality, self-determination, and human dignity—can help us to organize our thinking, collaborate with others, and take action. Human rights principles are so simple a five-year-old can intuitively understand them, while they befuddle most adults. This wonderful book helps to clarify human rights for us.

None would say that human rights are simple, but the international human rights community has emphasized their universality. They apply as much to the peoples living in the United States as they apply to the peoples of Papua New Guinea. The problem is that Americans have become obsessed with human rights violations elsewhere and fail to recognize the human rights violations in our own country (that is, in our own backyard). I would like to address a few preliminary questions, most of which are touched on by chapter authors but which merit emphasizing.

First, since human rights laws, treaties, and constitutional issues lie within the domain of the legal profession, why are we social scientists qualified to engage this enterprise? Second, why have human rights made such a dra-

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