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Public policy still puts blacks at disadvantage, says historian

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - March 17, 2008


Water everywhere, people on rooftops, clinging to trees. A Southern governor pleading with the President to help. The President busy because he’s on vacation.

When the levees break, the water pours in, leaving tens of thousands of people – mostly poor, mostly black – stranded with no food or potable water, and polluted water all around them. By the time the feds get there, it’s too late.

New Orleans in 2005? According to historian Carol Anderson, the description is just as apt for the great Mississippi flood of 1927.

Anderson, an associate professor at the University of Missouri and the 2008 Day Pitney Visiting Scholar at the UConn Law School, made her remarks during a March 5 lecture titled, “When the Levees Broke: The Un-Civil Rights Movement in America.”

“There are almost 80 years’ difference between Jim Crow 1927 and ‘we value diversity’ 2005,” she said.

“How is it we can have the same languages, the same images, the same results? The answer is: This is not an equal rights society, because it’s not a human rights society.”

Anderson said the people trapped in New Orleans in 2005 barely “had a handle” on civil rights, such as the right not to be illegally searched and seized, or the right to vote. They certainly did not have a handle on human rights – the rights to a decent education, health care, housing, and employment opportunities – “rights that would have given them the ability to withstand mother nature and government incompetence.”

The disaster in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was “the legacy of decades of public policy,” said Anderson.

Anderson is the author of an award-winning book Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955. It is based on a Ph.D. dissertation she wrote at Ohio State University, where Michael Hogan, now UConn’s president, was her advisor.

In her talk, she gave a historical sketch of the tortuous path of civil and human rights in the U.S. during the 20th century.

“When human rights were beginning to gain traction in the system, about the time of World War II,” she said, “there were forces in the U.S. that wanted nothing to do with human rights and fought back.”

At that time, she said, black Americans faced grim conditions.

For example, the poll tax requirement in some states and “election-day terrorism” effectively disenfranchised many. Eighty percent of African Americans were educated in segregated schools that were separate but not equal to those of white students; the unemployment rate for black Americans was 41 percent; and lack of access to health care meant that African Americans lived, on average, 10 years less and experienced an infant mortality rate double that of the white population.

After the war, Americans saw that the growing human rights movement had the potential to alleviate such conditions, but those in political power resisted attempts to embed those rights in the United Nations charter, she said.

Although forced to concede that the charter should include a provision against discrimination, the U.S. countered with a clause that ensured the UN had no authority over matters within a state’s domestic jurisdiction.

“The UN could not require a state to change its immigration policy or Jim Crow legislation,” Anderson said. The American delegates were “seeing to it that human rights didn’t penetrate U.S. borders.”

During the Cold War era, she said, the ground shifted some, but the U.S. found a way to “use human rights as a cudgel to beat on the Soviet Union.”

When the Soviets raised the issue of the protection of minorities, the U.S. responded by redefining minorities as people with a separate culture, language, and political agenda, and claimed that so defined, America had none.

Anderson said that although the Declaration of Human Rights was intended as a complete listing of universal human rights, the U.S. used its clout to break it into two parts, so that political and civil rights were separated from economic and social rights.

Calling economic and social issues not “rights” but “aspirations,” U.S. political leaders depicted them as “communistic,” she said, and used denigrating terms such as “socialized medicine” to stave off any potential movement toward universal health care at home.

In addition, a clause separating federal and state responsibilities allowed the federal government of the U.S. to sign off on the treaty, said Anderson, but because of the country’s political system, no state had to abide by its provisions.

Even Eleanor Roosevelt, known as a champion of civil rights and human rights, played a role in keeping rights violations against African Americans off the United Nations’ agenda, Anderson said.

When the NAACP planned to submit a petition to the UN, the former First Lady resigned as a member of the Association’s board of directors, agreeing to stay only when the NAACP backed off from its human rights agenda.

“As the civil rights movement was beginning,” said Anderson, “already the platform for the struggle for equality had been significantly narrowed, from human rights to civil rights.”

Decades later, Anderson said, African Americans still suffer the “cumulative toll” of lack of access to decent education, affordable housing, health care, and employment opportunities.

For example, fewer than 5 percent of African Americans own their own home; and many major school districts graduate less than 50 percent of students: only 42 percent of New York City’s 1.2 million students graduate.

“Think what this means about the rest of human rights in the U.S.,” she said.

Recalling civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois’ comment in the early 1900s, “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” Anderson said the history of critical public policy choices in America has left the color line the problem of the 21st century as well.

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