Let’s Talk About Human Rights: The Failure of ‘Rights’ Rhetoric


The popular narratives behind civil rights have come to the forefront in light of the recent attention paid to extrajudicial murders of Black people by the state.  What I find most interesting is the constant references back to the civil rights movement.  Much of what has been in the media refers Ferguson, NYC, and other Black Lives Matter protests to the “new” or “next” Civil Rights Movement.  Gay marriage has been called a type of new civil rights movement as well.  There’s a number of problems with this popular narrative that reduces any and every struggle for a single type of right to being “civil rights”.  We’ve seen this happen with gay marriage, immigrant rights, and then the labeling of any new focus on a marginalized group as “The New Black”.

In her research, legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw revealed that legislation that spoke to Blackness alone and then gender alone failed Black women.  It was at the intersections that Black women suffered and civil rights legislation ignore this reality.  To call LGBTQ rights the new Civil Rights is anti-Black erasure.  It ignores the existence of Black LGBTQ as well as turns Black people into these empty signifiers for rights that our people have fought and struggled for and still do not get in this nation.  These vaccuum discussions of rights struggles manage to use Black resistance as the stepping stool for non Black peoples to utilize as part of their narrative in demanding rights.  And to do so is to demand rights at the expense of dehumanizing other people.  If we can not have a discussion about human rights that’s intersectional (encompassing all of the socio-political statuses that impact peoples’ lives) then we take the risk of erasing & ignoring the nuance & difference within each other’s experiences.  If intersectionality is at the core of our discussion about what “rights” are, its extremely important for us to understand that struggles for recognition as humans among marginalized/disempowered populations are all part of the larger goal of achieving human rights.  So this means putting things into historical, political, social, & economic contexts that do not erase people or use their history & labor as stepping stones for you to get attention.

In this blog post my goal is to have a wider discussion of the context of looking at what human rights are made up of and why civil rights alone is just not enough.  I think its important to couch this discussion of human rights within a discussion of the struggle against the violent use of power against the disenfranchised.  But it is also crucial to note that any conversation about rights in the US is in the context of being rights distributed by a settler state, on stolen Indigenous lands.  There is great limitation to integration into this nation state being the solution for colonized peoples who when brought her or arriving here did not bring sovereignty with them.


Well I’m so glad you asked.  Has anybody besides me noticed that a lot of articles have been branding Black Lives Matter protests & organizing as the “next Civil Rights Movement”? Yeah. Uh huh.  Civil rights does not completely encompass all of human rights, its only PART of human rights.  Civil rights encompass the rights of citizens, its based on a nation’s construction of WHAT a citizen is.  If you pay close attention to the history of the settler colonial state that is the U.S., you’ll notice a key component: race was utilized as one of the key components to developing the concept of “American citizenship”.  That means that citizenship is heavily influenced by and built off of conceptions of whiteness and the dehumanization of racial others (e.g. anti-Blackness, Orientalism, Indigenous erasure, etc..).  Let’s look to the example of The Naturalization Act of 1790 and racial prerequisite cases:

Quotes from “Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, & Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century” by Dorothy Roberts:

“Another set of racial cases involved the litigation over the legal question, Who is white? The Naturalization Act of 1790, the nation’s first definition of American citizenship, restricted eligibility to free white immigrants.  Until this racial requirement was abolished in 1952, being either a “white person” or (after the Civil War) a person of “African nativity, or African descent” was a prerequisite of becoming a citizen.  Determining which groups of immigrants met the whiteness test for naturalization became a vital legal issues for almost a century.  Between 1878 and 1952, state and federal judges issues decisions in 52 racial prerequisite cases, including 2 argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1920s.  In these cases, judges ruled that Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Hawaiians, Afghanis, Native Americans, and anyone of mixed ancestry were not white.  Arabs, Syrians, and Asian Indians were considered white by some judges and not by others.  Armenians were more successful at claiming whiteness, despite their geographic origins east of the Bosporus Strait, which separates Europe from Asia.

Reviewing these cases, legal scholar Ian Haney Lopez discovered 2 chief rationales advanced by judges to justify their racial designations: common knowledge and scientific evidence.  At times, courts relied on both widely held understandings of race and scientific expertise on the subject to determine which groups qualified as white.  The very first case, decided by a California judge in 1878, arose when Ah Yup, “a native and citizen of the empire of China,” petitioned in writing to be admitted as a citizen of the United stated, raising the central question, “Is a person of the Mongolian race a ‘white person’ within the meaning of the [naturalization] statute?”  Judge Sawyer dismissed the argument that the category “white person” was indefinite, noting that these words in this country, at least, have undoubtedly acquired a well settled meaning in common popular speech.”  The phrase “white person,” the court stated, ordinarily referred to someone of the Caucasian race.  The judge then turned for guidance to the racial typologies developed by European naturalists Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, George Louis de Buffon, Carl Linnaeus, and Georges Cuvier, observing that all grouped Caucasians separately from Mongolians.” (Roberts, 2011:14-15)

“The racial question was ultimately a political question about which groups the federal government deemed qualified for citizenship.” (Roberts, 2011:16)


In “The Civil Rights Society: The Social Construction of Victims”, the author Kristen Bumiller discusses how the praxis of civil rights legislation in the U.S. perpetuates the victimization of the target population that they are supposed to help.  Bumiller structures her argument around looking at how the civil rights movement impacted how people understand anti-discrimination law. Bumiller argues that the civil rights movement is a consequence of individuals who believe that the law has moral responsibility and a responsibility to maintain equality. Anti-discrimination legislation leaves loads of loop holes that ensure it’s practically impossible to prove discrimination. There are huge differences between the civil rights consciousness of the public versus the actual function of anti-discrimination legislation and the function of this legislation in courts. As stated by Bumiller, “…the role of the courts in moving society toward racial equality is limited by the competing values of local autonomy, administrative efficiency, and social justice for the majority”.  And when such cases are pursued in the courts, the intent of discrimination is what has to be proved. The main synopsis of the argument is understanding how people feel about the anti-discrimination legislative process and the ways in which they feel victimized. The mass consciousness concerning what appears to be a social reality is heavily influenced by ideology and one that can twisted by those with power.

Research has actually demonstrated that civil rights legislation has helped white women more than any other group.  In legal practice, Civil Rights fall flat and fail for those most dehumanized in the U.S.. Critical Race Theorists have also discussed the failure of legislation as the means through which we make changes in society, suggesting that maybe law isn’t the best route.  And we have already seen that when legislation with a particular purpose of protecting the most disenfranchised is past, it actually puts them at great risk, further victimizing society’s most vulnerable.  In many ways this demonstrates that legislation is not the solution, well not by itself.  The courts are not the best way to enforce human rights, its one way to get it down on paper but the equitable political liberation of all within this society requires a deeper and more complicated restructuring of how everything works.

What does this all mean?

  • Who qualifies as a “citizen” and true “American” is conditional based on race, ethnicity, economic status, gender, sexuality, ability, etc..
  • You can have civil rights while also not being able to practice your full human rights
  • Even when civil rights are violated, you have to prove it, then the judge & courts decide whether not your proof is sufficient or not (refer back to the Roberts quotes)


Martin Luther King Jr.’s feelings towards Civil Rights Legislation is actually an important historical turning point that many people skip over.  Black people struggled, died, & fought for integration, formal laws against discrimination, and voting rights.  The unfortunate part is we got integration, voting rights, “laws” that “protect” against discrimination & then that’s when MLK Jr. realized he didn’t ask for all the right things.  Because in reality, you can’t practice civil rights without social, political, and economic rights.  Civil rights mean nothing if the nation you live in won’t even acknowledge your humanity.  Eventually MLK Jr. realized that we also needed social, political, and economic rights.  Once he figured this out & began organizing and speaking out against the military industrial complex and capitalism.  MLK Jr. was killed just 3 weeks before the Poor People’s Campaign and march to Washington, D.C.. We all love to discuss that MLK Jr. had a dream but we constantly forget that he also said that his dream had become a nightmare.

2015-03-05 02.10.312015-01-19 17.37.43

tumblr_ngfe0skhLi1s7ngy7o1_12802015-01-19 12.47.45


The law isn’t the best measure or means to enforce or achieve human rights, we also have to envision what human rights looks like in praxis, beyond legislation and into practice in everyday social, political, and economic institutions.  Political scientists like Kristen Bumiller and Mary Ann Glendon have looked at how in many ways U.S. citizens’ views of political rights are absolute and in many ways inaccurate because they see their rights as citizens very similar to the ACTUAL property rights in the U.S..  Glendon argues in “Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse” that the courts aren’t the best way to protect civil rights and there are way too many loop holes because the supreme court especially wasn’t designed to guarantee the kinds of rights that the most disenfranchised are demanding.  Glendon discusses how the way people talk about rights becomes problematic and distracts people from being able to progressively engage in making political decisions that can lead to a more civil society. Glendon states that the illusion of absoluteness within rights rhetoric is a consequence of the different ways colonialists in early United States understood and conceptualized John Locke’s philosophical words on property rights.   The absoluteness of legal protection in the U.S. isn’t really for citizens, its for property, land, and corporations.  The majority of the hallmark legal rights in the public conscious are mainly about protecting market interests, the rights of property owners, and insuring the survival & profit engine for industry.  So in many ways the way U.S. citizens talk about rights is actually wrong.  As a settler colonial state, the U.S.’s greatest interests are in ensuring the largest profit and hence the greatest quantity of production not in ensuring it produces the greatest quality humans/citizens.  In many ways U.S. citizens are ignoring the limits of civil rights and the fact that while civil rights exist yes, there are other legal ramifications and rights that the state and its institutions has and uses to violate the civil rights of citizens.

“The state’s purpose is to maintain sovereignty, authority and control over people.  But in order for the state to maintain hegemonic order in a capitalist nation it has to be financed.  Corporations function as financers that provide the state with the funds necessary to maintain control.   Corporations need the state to regulate and subjugate in order for them to make the max profit and the state needs capital to fund its control over the people.  Thus, the state produces very particular types of people, spaces, and circumstances, through which corporations can make the maximum profit off of.  Hence disenfranchised populations are at the mercy of state control for the purposes of maintaining maximum profits in a capitalist nation.  Therefore, the state and capitalist corporations’ functions and rationales have a symbiotic relationship within an oligarchic capitalist republic” (McLean, 2014:12).

Its crucially important to understand the relationships between different institutions and the ways in which human rights become violated.  It is also crucial to understand what rights you are struggling for and demanding.  The discussions and struggles for human rights is also a struggle against the hegemonic hording of power among the few (currently white supremacist racist cisheteropatriarchal ableist capitalism).   These are ALL issues of power.  We constantly make the mistake of assuming that these issues are about feelings.  This is about more than attitude when Black people are being killed via the extrajudicial murder of the state police everyday.  And if you manage to escape the police, security guards, or the vigilantes then you may be one of the 230 Black people who dies everyday due to racial health inequities (avoidable health conditions) as the result of intersectional inequities and murder via medical, social, & political negligence.  Its time for us to have nuanced conversations about the intersections of human rights as well as where we see the state violate our basic rights as human beings.  This means having larger conversations in our communities about what kind of society we want to live in, this means being historically, socially, politically, economically, and contextually accurate.

Human rights is civil, political, economic, & social rights.

2015-02-21 11.11.44

Having your human rights means that you will have the sovereignty to act to pursue your goals as long as they don’t entrench on the human rights of another person.  We want the power to decide our own fate, not have it be in the hands of another.  Which means that human rights is intersectional.  The idea that we can only fight one issue at a time is problematic because, in the words of Audre Lorde, we don’t live single issues lives.  In many ways the work of Alicia Garza, Opal Tometti, & Patrisse Cullors with Black Lives Matter has called attention to those said intersections and also a reminder that we are fighting for something that is BEYOND only civil rights and that we are learning from the previous Black radical movements across the Diaspora and on the continent of Africa.  Black Lives Matter is a declaration of the humanity of all Black lives as well as a call for resistance against white supremacist narratives that has dehumanized us at every turn for the last 500 years.

2015-02-07 22.19.25