Magazine article The American Prospect

Shame in Our Own House: How Segregation and Racism Have Fed U.S. Resistance to International Human-Rights Treaties

Magazine article The American Prospect

Shame in Our Own House: How Segregation and Racism Have Fed U.S. Resistance to International Human-Rights Treaties

Article excerpt

IN ITS RELATIONS WITH THE REST OF THE WORLD, AMERICA STRUGGLES WITH A profound contradiction. On the one hand, our country has been a pioneer in the human-rights movement, providing much of the language and inspiration for international efforts to win equality for all. On the other hand, our government has repeatedly blocked attempts to bring these rights home to America's own racial minorities, and that hypocrisy lurks at the core of out moral identity as a nation, undermining our claims to global leadership.

The roots of the problem run deep. Since the country's inception, when the Founding Fathers decided to build a rights based government on the foundation of slavery, the commitment to grant basic human rights to some, but not all, citizens has bedeviled out nation. Along with the legacy of racism itself, we are still contending with institutions originally established to preserve slavery. It was a compromise reached at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, which gave southern slave states disproportionate power in the U.S. Senate; in the years following, influential southern senators were able to block every anti-slavery measure passed by the House of Representatives, terminate Reconstruction, and, until 1957, obstruct all civil-rights legislation. The power of southern senators has also been used to ensure that America's engagement in the world posed no threat to its discriminatory practices at home. That purpose, like the compromise in 1787, met the interests of a broader constituency than just the South.

No historical period demonstrates the resulting clash of policy--the simultaneous promotion of human rights and rejection of racial equality--better than the era of the United Nations' founding. The end of World War II created an opportunity for the United States to position itself as not only the military leader but also the moral leader of the world. Eleanor Roosevelt became one of the principal drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the document that first created the legal framework for the international human-rights movement. Americans promoted the creed of democracy, freedom, and human dignity around the world.

At the same time, African American leaders were intensifying their appeals to the international community to redress the damage done by more than three centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and racism. Americans such as Walter White and W.E.B. DuBois of the NAACP, Mordecai Johnson of Howard University, and Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, participated as activist observers at the Dumbarton Oaks and San Francisco conferences that gave birth to the United Nations. There they joined oppressed and colonial peoples from around the world in lobbying the "great powers" to include guarantees of fundamental human rights in the UN Charter.

But the U.S. government balked at that. The American delegation was wary of the implications such standards would have for racial equality at home. U.S. Delegate Tom Connally, a senator from Texas, opposed even language about UN support for education, because, he said, it might be read as endorsing "educa[tion] irrespective of race."

In the end, the U.S. delegation agreed to a UN Charter that called for "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion." But the Americans also guaranteed that the United Nations had no authority to intervene in human-rights matters, which were "presumed," in the words the United States insisted be written into the charter, "to be solely within the domestic jurisdiction of each country." The U.S. delegation also successfully lobbied against establishing a powerful commission to consider these issues. The UN Commission on Human Rights, as ultimately created, was essentially toothless.

Back in Washington, southern Democrats, with their iron grip on the U. …

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