Racial Justice, Counterspeech, and Media

24 02 2008
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On February 21st and 22nd of this past week, the United States government defended its human rights record regarding racial justice during the last 7 years before a United Nations expert committee in Geneva, Switzerland. The U.S. government’s periodic report on its spotty record of compliance with the International Convention to End all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) was closely scrutinized due to egregiously omitting or minimizing the impact of discriminatory it overlooked or willfully perpetuated.

Much of the racial discrimination in the wake of the 9/11 or during and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina violated international and U.S. law. Human rights advocates, for example, have pointed to how the U.S. devoted a mere single paragraph to Hurricane Katrina in its 124-page periodic report while also claiming the deaths of the victims was not due to “discrimination per se.” Unsurprisingly, the U.S. had nothing substantive to say about its flawed Katrina evacuation plan, or the NOLA housing crisis, or the depleted public defender system, all of which have disproportionately affected black people in New Orleans.

Nor did the U.S. report discuss in any great detail the racial dimension of it post-9/11 immigration policies. In particular, the U.S. government found a way to omit any mention of the Bush administration’s abusive detention polices and harassment by law enforcement of Latin American and Arab or South Asian immigrants, whether documented or not.

Yet few of us, including those in the American media, have given much thought to how in addition to outright violating U.S. domestic law these abuses also amount to human rights violations, such as the right to return, the right to nationality, and the right to challenge your detention. This is precisely why the United States should adopt a system where people are informed about their rights, why human rights should in fact be considered the cornerstone of democracy. Our sense of justice should go beyond the lofty rhetoric about how freedom is on the march that finds its way out of Bush’s mouth primarily when delivering a speech on Iraq.

Public education campaigns on human or civil rights simply don’t exist in the U.S., though the government would have us think otherwise. In a very confused passage of its U.N. report the government on the hand claims on page 15 that its citizens are well informed as to what their rights are by arguing:

Information about human rights is readily available in the United States. As a general matter, persons are well informed about their civil and political rights, including the rights of equal protection, due process, and non-discrimination. The scope and meaning of – and issues concerning enforcement of – individual rights are openly and vigorously discussed in the media, freely debated within the various political parties and representative institutions, and litigated before the courts at all levels.

But yet in another paragraph on page 16 after admitting so much subtle forms of racial discrimination still persist it conceded that not many people know what their rights are.

Subtle, and in some cases overt, forms of discrimination against minority individuals and groups continue to plague American society, reflecting attitudes that persist from a legacy of segregation, ignorant stereotyping, and disparities in opportunity and achievement. Such problems are compounded by factors such as inadequate understanding by the public of the problem of racial discrimination, lack of awareness of the government-funded programs and activities designed to address it, lack of resources for enforcement, and other factors.

So either the debate about what our rights are not terribly informative or American society is so beleaguered by racism that most of its citizenry are too confused to truly make sense out of them. Either way it does not sound as if we are that well informed about our rights.

(More after the jump.)

Interestingly enough, Article 7 of the CERD treaty itself obligates all signatory nations to “to adopt immediate and effective measures, particularly in the fields of teaching, education, culture and information, with a view to combating prejudices which lead to racial discrimination and to promoting understanding.” In an effort to sidestep this obligation the U.S. government has focused on the U.N. Committee previous narrow set of recommendations of prohibiting hate speech. The U.S. report cites its commitment to the First Amendment in explaining its general reluctance in regulating speech. In fact, on page 104, the government says “The purpose of the First Amendment is to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail.”

Fine. But there are other ways of combating hate speech other than censorship.

Counter speech is still consistent with the aims of the First Amendment. If Justice Brandies maxim that “the cure for allegedly bad speech is not regulation, but more speech” still holds then its entirely possible for the U.S government to sponsor its own anti-racist educational campaign of its own. After all, the U.S. government has used instruments such as Free Radio Asia and Free Radio Europe to propagate to extol the virtues of free-market democracies and retard the influence of communism. That’s counter speech in an international context.

Replicating those exact efforts at home, however, would rightly be criticized as an Orwellian enterprise. But the U.S. government could return to including race and gender as factors in deciding which licenses to approve for broadcast media ownership. In return the government could ask these businesses to promote the role that civil and human rights play in the health of our democracy.

Interestingly enough, this is not a new idea. As Senators Obama and Kerry noted several months ago in the Politico:

Minority-owned radio stations, television stations and newspapers played an essential role in battling segregation during the civil rights movement.

When Hurricane Katrina struck, minority-owned media outlets helped expose the true depth of poverty and inequality that others were content to ignore.

Even today, while much of the media establishment has moved on, minority-owned media outlets continue to highlight these issues as the victims of that storm continue to struggle — two years later.

Just recently, African-American radio stations — together with coverage on the Internet — helped propel the injustice in Jena, La., into the national spotlight.

Providing opportunities for minority-owned businesses to own media outlets is fundamental to creating the diverse media environment that federal law requires and the country deserves and demands.

The Federal Communications Commission is the agency charged with governing the media. The FCC has an obligation to promote the public interest, including diversity in media ownership.

Fiercely combating racism and prejudice will only be harder in a country where people of color comprise a third of the population, but respectively own just 5 and 3.6 percent of the media. Truth will not prevail in this kind of inhibited so-called “marketplace of ideas.”

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