For many Americans, the recent events in Ferguson raised disturbing questions. But not all Americans were equally disturbed, or disturbed by the same things. Surveys and polls conducted since Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, reveal a stark divide between whites and blacks. Whereas a clear majority of African-Americans consider the conduct of the police outrageous and typical, most white Americans were far more critical of the disorder that followed Brown’s death. Fox News and its ilk dwelled on “looters” rather than on the sources of African-American alienation. Americans seem to be stuck in an endless repetition of 1968, the year that many African-American communities erupted in anger after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., and many white Americans responded fearfully to that anger and protest by voting for Richard Nixon.
There is another divide over race that gets far less attention (that is to say, virtually none) in the media: between Americans and non-Americans. Americans tend to think about racial matters in this country in terms of civil rights, whereas around the world they are commonly looked at in terms of human rights (and the term “race” is, if possible, avoided). When it comes to the treatment of racial or ethnic groups in other countries, American leaders and policymakers routinely employ the language of human rights. Not so for comparable grievances at home.
The distinction between civil rights and human rights is not semantic. The civil rights movement sees racial discrimination as a domestic concern, to be resolved among Americans. It demands that American society live up to the nation’s creed that “all men are created equal.” But to many critics, mainly from the left, defining the black struggle as a civil rights struggle has kept African-Americans under the political and moral jurisdiction of the United States, where they continually suffer from institutionalized racism. In the past, black leaders and intellectuals such as Malcolm X and James Baldwin insisted that when blacks encountered police brutality (for example) their human (and not just civil) rights were violated. Substituting “human rights” for “civil rights” also meant that the problems facing African-Americans would be a matter of concern for the international community.
Americans horrified by the killings of unarmed African-Americans, the militarization and aggressiveness of overwhelmingly white police in mostly black communities, and the feeble, handwringing responses of elected officials should start thinking of ways to tie the plight of African-Americans in the United States to the universal claim for human rights, because a heightened global interest in racial violence in the United States, viewed through the prism of human rights, might turn out to be the only key to significant progress.
This turn from civil rights to human rights entails the shattering of some powerfully entrenched myths about the African-American condition. It starts at school. Most Americans (and for that matter, people in other countries) are taught a comforting, and incomplete, version of civil rights history. It goes something like this: For several decades after Reconstruction, the American South had a system—Jim Crow—that enforced the segregation and discrimination of African-Americans. Led by inspirational figures such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., and assisted by enlightened whites, blacks fought against Jim Crow and met with harsh resistance from white Southern authorities. Ultimately, however, thanks to the tireless efforts from below, and their own liberal benevolence, national leaders and the federal courts saw the light and promoted civil rights legislation. Since then, the United States has been on a steady forward march, culminating in the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. There are of course occasional unfortunate glitches, reminding us of darker times, but overall this is a story of progress. Given the popularity and appeal of this narrative, designed more than anything to make Americans (white or otherwise) feel good about themselves, it is perhaps not so surprising that many Americans are stunned every time a Ferguson happens—not necessarily by the killing of a black male (that is too common), but by the outburst of anger that follows.