In Pursuit of the Dream: Race and Tolerance in the United States in the 21st Century
Speech by Wade Henderson, president and CEO, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, at a U.S. government-sponsored human rights panel in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 5, 2009.
Good afternoon. My name is Wade Henderson and I am the President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the oldest, largest, and most diverse civil and human rights coalition in the United States. LCCR consists of more than 200 national organizations representing persons of color, women, children, organized labor, persons with disabilities, the elderly, gays and lesbians, and major religious groups. I am also is also the Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., Professor of Public Interest Law at the University of the District of Columbia, David A. Clarke School of Law. I am privileged to represent the civil and human rights community here today to talk about the changing nature and continued resonance of issues of race and discrimination in the United States.
Although our country is young, the struggle for equality in the United States has been long. We have had many victories and countless setbacks. And through it all our work has been rooted in and inspired by civil and human rights struggles around the world. We are therefore very pleased that the United States has joined the Human Rights Council, and we are hopeful that this renewed engagement with the world around human rights issues will result in greater progress both at home and around the globe.
The election of President Barack Obama has been a watershed moment for all of us. President Obama is an African-American who spent a significant portion of his professional life as a civil rights lawyer and advocate. For the first time in memory, we have a president who understands our movement from the inside. We have a leader who embraces the need for strong engagement on human rights issues, both at home and abroad. The president’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt is the best example of that engagement. This kind of engagement sends a powerful message of hope, dignity and possibility in this country and all across this planet. He is changing the way that the world thinks about America; the way that White Americans think about Black Americans; and the way that Black Americans – and, I suspect members of every racial and ethnic minority -- think about themselves. We have a moment in history that we cannot squander.
More than two years ago, during a voting rights commemoration in Selma, Alabama, President Obama acknowledged that he is a member of the “Joshua Generation” that is continuing the journey that the “Moses Generation” began. This once again begs the question that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked decades ago: where do we go from here on our journey toward justice? I think the answer is simple. We should revel in the progress that we have made; recognize the problems that remain; and rededicate ourselves to continuing the journey toward fulfilling our nation’s finest, founding ideas.
For many years, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has been engaged in both a domestic and international work to promote dignity, equality, and justice for all. We advocated for U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and submitted shadow reports in response to the US Government’s reports in 2000 and 2007.1 We coordinated NGO involvement in the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe around combating Racial Discrimination, Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and related forms of Intolerance. We participated in the preparatory meetings and NGO forum at the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001,2 and most recently urged the U.S. Government to participate in the Durban Review Process.3
This level of international engagement has helped strengthen our work at home in significant ways. It has also confirmed our belief that there is a serious need for a new, international effort to combat racism and discrimination.
Our civil rights movement in America started simply. African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities wanted the right to equal access to educational opportunities; the right to vote; the right to use public services; the right to be treated fairly in the workplace, and to buy or rent a house in any neighborhood we could afford. We demanded the fulfillment of the promise of our constitution: full and equal citizenship. We wanted dignity and our fair chance at achieving the American dream.
More than half a century later, our goals are yet unmet. While we have made real progress in every area, the finish line is still well in the distance.
For example, education in America remains largely segregated by race, and racial disparities track opportunity disparities in communities across the country. Too many of the schools in low income and minority communities in America are the opposite of opportunity. Their buildings are decaying. They are not wired for the Internet. The teachers often are not qualified for the subjects that they teach. And the classrooms are overcrowded. Together with their hardships at home, the inadequacies of public schools in communities across the country go a long way toward explaining why 50 percent of Black and Latino students in America drop out of high school.
The only places in America more racially segregated than the public schools are our prisons and jails. Today, while African Americans and Latinos make up approximately 25 percent of the U.S. population, more than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their twenties, 1 in every 8 is in prison or jail on any given day. These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the so-called "war on drugs," in which three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color. If current trends continue, one out of every three African American males born today can expect to go to prison. From racial profiling, to discrimination in prosecution and sentencing, our criminal justice system is failing the minority community and, along the way, ruining the lives of countless numbers of African American and Latino children and adults.
We also know that if quality education is the door to opportunity, then persistent poverty is the starkest reminder of the denial of opportunity. Even before the recession began, official statistics showed over 12% of the population—36.5 million people—were officially poor. Other reports show the number to be closer to 17%. By either measurement, there are far too many poor people in America. Ultimately, the moral challenge of our time is to lift up those who labor for low wages or are unable to find work. That challenge – to lift up “the least among us” – was Dr. King’s final mission when he journeyed to Memphis, Tennessee to support striking sanitation workers and gave his life before he had completed his work.
The civil and human rights community and the entire nation also face the challenge of fixing our immigration system. Every reasonable person agrees that the system is broken. Every reasonable person agrees that the answer must not be to scapegoat some of the most vulnerable people in our country who do difficult jobs for low wages, no benefits, and few rights in their workplaces or their communities. We strongly believe that legalization for the roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. is a civil and human right imperative that cannot be ignored.
And we can’t lose sight of the fact that more than 45 million Americans, including disproportionate numbers of African Americans and Latinos, are uninsured and that millions more live in fear that their coverage will be cut back, the costs will be increased, or that they will lose their insurance when they lose their jobs. We need universal health coverage in America, beginning with every family with children at home. And we need to make sure that health care professionals and healthcare institutions are accessible to people in minority and low-income communities.
We also must protect the right that makes it possible to defend all our other rights – and that is the right to vote. Later this month, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether a key aspect of our federal voting rights law in constitutional. While many of us thought this battle was long ago won, our current Court is not so sure. If we lose this fight, the implications for racial justice in voting will be profound.
In recent months, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund (LCCREF), the education and research arm of the civil rights coalition, has issued three important reports analyzing contemporary civil and human rights challenges. The first examined the need to reform the United States Civil Rights Commission and revive its role as the conscience of our nation.4 This report outlines the Commission’s significant achievements, assesses its challenges, and examines the roles that structural and political changes and the evolving complexities of civil rights issues have played in the work of the commission. At its conclusion, the report makes recommendations for the future of the commission, including reviving it as a civil and human rights monitoring body.
Last fall, the civil rights community issued a report examining the state of fair housing in America.5 This report examined what has gone wrong with fair housing enforcement that has led to the persistence of residential segregation across the country, and makes concrete recommendations for reform.
Finally, LCCREF has just completed its forthcoming report on hate crimes entitled “Confronting the New Faces of Hate: Hate Crimes in America.” This report concludes that violence committed against individuals because of their race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation remains a serious problem in the United States. In the nearly twenty years since the federal government started collecting statistics on incidents of hate crimes, the number of hate crimes reported has consistently ranged around 7,500 or more annually—that’s nearly one every hour of every day.
However, and of particular concern, the number of hate crimes committed against Hispanics and those perceived to be immigrants has increased each of the past four years for which FBI data is available, and hate crimes committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation has increased to its highest level in five years.
Of course, hate crimes are by no means just an American phenomenon—they are on the rise in many countries in Europe and the former Soviet Union, where government responses in most countries across this region have been inadequate. Beyond tackling hate crimes at home, it is incumbent upon the United States to demonstrate international leadership to promote the adoption and effective implementation of hate crime laws, improve the response of governments to hate violence, and help build the capacity of civil society organizations to complement and support these government efforts.
The preparations and conduct of the United Nations Durban Review Conference highlighted the challenges of discussing and tackling issues of race, ethnicity, and discrimination within the UN framework. The conference began on a bad note, as the anti-Western and Anti-Semitic remarks made by the President of Iran were precisely the sort of hatred and incitement that the Durban Review process was meant to combat. But the approval of an outcome document – from which the most harmful paragraphs were removed – is an achievement that should not go unnoticed. Today, we call on states to take what was included in the outcome document and advance human rights protections through the work of the Human Rights Council -- in partnership with those states who chose to stay away from the conference.
Together with its partners and allies within the international community, the U.S. administration must try to break the mold of regional voting blocks that lie in the Human Rights Council, where predictable positions are often adopted and advocated in the name of regional solidarity. Opportunities can be created to unite African, Asian, and Latin American countries to adopt independent positions. This is the way forward for new coalitions to slowly emerge around a core set of human rights issues, uniting countries rather than dividing them.
The quest for common ground can yield results – but only if political agendas are pushed to the side. Indeed, there are human rights abuses that concern all states – such as the alarming rise of hate crimes and racist-motivated violence that touches upon every region of the world, affecting individuals from all racial, ethnic, religious, and other backgrounds. This is a core human rights issue where the U.S. could enhance its international leadership, in part by taking further steps to address this issue at home.
Much work remains to be done to advance human rights and civil rights both at home and abroad. As a country, we have traveled a great distance along the path of racial reconciliation toward the goal of social justice and cohesion. However, our racially defined history of injustice still shapes today’s realities. Racism and racial discrimination continue to impact the lives of Americans and the international community as a whole. While the manifestations may be different from one country to another, the problem is a collective one and it requires a collective solution.
I am hopeful that the United States Government’s re-engagement in the work of the Human Rights Council will be an important step toward that end. Together, our goals for civil and human rights for all -- regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation -- are more than dreams. They must define our future.
2. "Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye: Durban and Beyond" by Wade Henderson January/February 2002 issue of
Poverty & Race
3. H.R. 1361 (pdf). United States. Cong. House. 110th Congress, 2nd Session. H.R. 1361. Congressional Bills, GPO Access. Web. 23