Normative Narratives


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Transparency Report: America The Post-Racial? Not So Fast…

While there is no single definition of a post-racial society, I like the definition offered on Wikipedia:

Post-racial America is a theoretical environment where the United States is devoid of racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice.

Having defined what a post-racial American society entails, the next natural question would be “have we achieved this normative goal ?” Despite anecdotal evidence (Barack Obama was elected and re-elected as our President!), I would argue that America is not yet a post-racial society. It is important to make this distinction, as prematurely declaring “mission accomplished” ultimately makes accomplishing this goal all the more difficult.

Two specific issues–minority voting rights and school desegregation–highlight that work still remains to be done when it comes to achieving a post-racial society. Recent Supreme court decisions would make it seem that racial bias is no longer an issue in America; experiences in everyday life suggest otherwise.

Voting Rights:

During the 2011 legislative sessions, states across the country passed measures to make it harder for Americans – particularly African-Americans, the elderly, students and people with disabilities – to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot. Over thirty states considered laws that would require voters to present government-issued photo ID in order to vote. Studies suggest that up to 11 percent of American citizens lack such ID, and would be required to navigate the administrative burdens to obtain it or forego the right to vote entirely.

Despite this frenzy of state legislation to counteract so-called voter fraud and to protect the integrity of our elections, proponents of such voter suppression legislation have failed to show that voter fraud is a problem anywhere in the country. Aside from the occasional unproven anecdote or baseless allegation, supporters of these laws simply cannot show that there is any need for them. Indeed, despite the Department of Justice’s 2002 “Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Initiative” promising to vigorously prosecute allegations of voter fraud, the federal government obtained only 26 convictions or guilty pleas for fraud between 2002 and 2005. And other studies of voter fraud consistently find that it is exceedingly rare – a 2007 Demos study concluded that “voter fraud appears to be very rare” and a 2007 study by the Brennan Center found that “by any measure, voter fraud is extraordinarily rare.” The Voting Rights Project will continue to fight these laws that disenfranchise millions of eligible voters without any legitimate justification.

Despite evidence of voter discrimination based on race as recently as the 2012 Presidential Election, a Supreme Court ruling this June essentially removed federal oversight over state and local voting laws (which is the level at which all elections are held):    

The decision in Shelby County v. Holder revolves around Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which establishes a “coverage formula” to determine which states and local governments fall under Section 5, and therefore need to get approval before changing their voting laws. The justices ruled that Section 4 is unconstitutional, and that the formula used for decades — revised and extended several times by Congress — can no longer be used to establish those “preclearance” requirements: “The conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.” 

Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion on the ruling highlights the need to restore Section 4 and the potential dangers of prematurely gutting the Voting Rights Act:

With overwhelming support in both Houses, Congress concluded that, for two prime reasons, §5 should continue in force, unabated. First, continuance would facilitate completion of the impressive gains thus far made; and second, continuance would guard against back­-sliding. Those assessments were well within Congress’ province to make and should elicit this Court’s unstinting approbation.

School Desegregation:

African-American and Latino students are less likely to attend racially and ethnically diverse schools today than at any other time in the last four decades. This, almost 60 years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling that desegregated schools, represents a major setback for one of the core goals of the civil rights movement.

“Our school district is extremely segregated,” said Caitlin McNulty, an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Valley West Elementary School in Houston. “Part of that is just we have a huge minority population in our district, period, so I’d say the majority of our schools are at least 80 percent minority.”

In her school district, African-Americans and Latinos made up more than 90 percent of the student population last year. Only seven of the 705 students at her school were white — less than one percent.

“That’s not out of the ordinary” in her district, McNulty said. “It’s just not representative of the population that’s here.”

In the 1971 case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that public school districts could pursue desegregation by busing students from highly segregated neighborhoods into majority-white schools. The goal was for schools to be “racially balanced” and be compliant with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

But in 1991, the Oklahoma City v. Dowell case ended a federal order to desegregate Oklahoma schools, opening the door for numerous court cases that have rolled back desegregation efforts across the country. The court ruled that as long as school districts made a “good faith” attempt to remedy past segregation, they would no longer have to try to integrate public schools.

Commenting on the findings of the Civil Rights Project’s study, the University of South Carolina School of Law’s Derek Black said that “integration steadily increased in our public schools from the late 1960s well into the 1980s and fundamentally enhanced the quality of education received by students of all races. But through a combination of willful, blind and benign neglect, nearly all of those gains have been lost.”

In Texas and other states experiencing resegregation of their schools, students now often grow up interacting only with other students who look like them.

Some may say “so what? whats the big deal? overt racism is no longer a problem in America and beyond that a persons racial biases (or lack-thereof) is their personal choice” However, racial bias in voting rights and school segregation have implications beyond just educational attainment and electoral outcomes. Both of these variables shape the enabling environment for a more racially inclusive and egalitarian society.

Voting rights are important because, based on who is elected to office, different policies will be enacted. By depressing minorities abilities to choose their elected officials, a snowball effect begins, with the end result being that the concerns of these marginalized groups are not addressed by our politicians. Inequalities increase and social exclusion persists. Minorities do not have the right to unilaterally determine who is elected / what policies they pass. However, they should have the same rights of every other citizen in affecting the outcomes of elections.

School re-segregation has an inter-generational effect on racial equality. When students go to desegregated schools, they interact with children who come from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. These experiences, particularly early in life, go a long way towards shaping peoples attitudes towards race and can help break damaging stereotypes. Every future leader of America will go through school, who they go to school with could very well affect their future policy decisions.

There is also the idea that “separate but equal” is never truly equal. If minority students are systematically herded into sub-par schools, they will go on to get worse jobs and racial inequality will increase in the future. American concepts of “equality of opportunity” and “meritocracy” are at stake; recent evidence suggests that inequality and social immobility have been trending upwards unchecked for decades.      

It is nice to dream of a post-racial America–it is a normative vision I surely share with millions of other Americans. However, simply saying “race is no longer an issue” does not make it so. This premature declaration will reverse recent gains made in racial equality and depresses the future prospects of minorities, threatening the “American Dream” itself. Political will is needed to counter inequality of opportunity in America, and it is clear that race must still be a consideration when harnessing this political will into public policy.


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Transparency Report: You’ve Gotta Fight, For Your (Human) Rights

This past week marked the well documented 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom and the “I Have a Dream” speech. Despite being known as a civil rights leader, Dr. King was irrefutably a human rights activist. Human rights include the economic and civil rights, as well as social, political, and cultural rights. Human rights, Dr. King realized, we indivisible, interdependent,non-excludable / universal (human rights are for all people, and are rooted in our common humanity) and mutually reinforcing; upholding certain rights (for example freedom of assembly, speech, political rights, the right to employment, access to information) empowers people to claim other rights, while one human rights violation tends to beget others (culminating in a life of poverty and social exclusion). Today, these concepts are largely accepted by the international community and domestic development organizations–in Dr. King’s time they were pioneering concepts. Dr. King understood the difficulty of claiming rights, which involves mobilizing an oppressed group to overcome vested interests, power asymmetries, and collective action problems which sustain these human rights violations.

Furthermore, Dr. King understood the role an accountable and effective democratic government plays in upholding human rights obligations–as evidenced by the location of this historic rally. An effective democracy creates an enabling environment for people to claim their rights, which is one of the main reasons that democracy and human rights are so closely related. However, this enabling environment is only the beginning of the determination and thick-skin needed to make meaningful advances in human rights.

There is no doubt in my mind that, had Dr. King not been assassinated, he would have continued his work both for civil rights specifically and human rights more generally. Dr. King would have undoubtedly endorsed UN Human Rights Treaties enshrining the rights to development and employment, as well as other economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. As a man, Dr. King died to young; as a symbol he will live forever–I hope in some small way I am helping to further the work of this great American hero.

I would like use this blog as anopportunity to reflect on two themes I have noticed in my time as a student of the political economy of development, as a human rights worker for the UNDP, and as a generally informed global citizen:

1) You’ve got to fight for your rights:

A play on a popular Beastie Boys Song, but the message is 100% true. When I think of advances in human rights in America (the civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the gay rights movement), they all have in common a struggle to mobilize people to claim their rights. Furthermore, sacrifices must be made–Dr. King made the ultimate sacrifice for his cause. Progress will not be linear or fast, but through hard work over time meaningful progress can be made.

2) The dehumanization of minorities:

We live in the “age of human rights”. A quick historic overview: the concept of human rights in international governance and development took root in the aftermath of WWII. However, it was not until the end of the Cold War that the opportunity to champion human rights globally presented itself. Since that point, the UN and other similar government and non-governmental organizations have taken up this call. This summer, as an intern with the UNDP democratic governance group’s human rights team, I had the opportunity to participate in an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and
Programme of Action
, which commemorated advances in human rights and mapped out future opportunities in human rights advocacy.

This “age of human rights” does not mean that human rights violations no longer occur. If anything, advances in ICTs and social media have exposed the extent to which human rights violations take place, particularly in least developed / authoritarian countries. Here at NN, I have written extensively on how human rights violations are at the heart of the majority of armed conflicts today; it is worth mentioning that development goals are rarely sustained in a conflict-affected country.

In this day and age, human rights violators justify their actions by dehumanizing the people whose rights are being violated. In Egypt and Syria, opposition groups are deemed terrorists by those in power. Just as media independence is a feature of a pluralistic democratic society, controls on media outlets–combined with propaganda campaigns–aim to drive home dehumanization in order to justify virtually any human rights violation (including murder). Racism, stereotyping and scapegoating can reinforce dehumanization campaigns.

We see dehumanization take place most often in the name of religion or “traditional values”. Any governing document, be it the Constitution of the United States, the Koran, or the Bible, interpreted too strictly, can be used to justify human rights violations; extremists may argue that if you do not subscribe to their beliefs, then you are less than human and do not deserve basic rights.

Governing documents are meant to be living, amenable to the context of the times. They are amended and reinterpreted to reflect changing societal norms; religion tends to be less adaptive, perhaps explaining part of the decline in religious observance in America. Islam’s  inability to reinterpret itself for modern times is a root cause of Islamic extremism.

I too have a dream, or a normative vision, for the world. This vision depends on greater investments in human rights education and human capital at a young age, recognizing youth as an extremely important period of personal development. It depends on an understanding of the importance of sustainable human development and both domestic and extra-territorial human rights obligations. Sustainable human development cannot take place to the detriment of future generations or at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Anybody can do their part to help realize this normative vision; challenge anybody trying to sell a strict interpretation of any ideology and / or trying to dehumanize any group with stereotypes / racism. The vast (silent) majority of the global community wants peace and prosperity for all–together we can overcome this global collective action problem in the years and decades to come.