October 3, 2008
by William A. Schambra
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"Taking Account of Race: A Philanthropic Imperative" was the inaugural forum in Georgetown University's 2008-2009 Waldemar A. Nielsen Issue Forums in Philanthropy: The Role of Philanthropy in Shaping Public Policy. The forum, organized by Georgetown University's Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership (CPNL) was held on October 3, 2008. Keynote remarks were given by Gara LaMarche, president and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, to which Hudson Institute's William Schambra gave the response below. For more information on the Issue Forums Series, including an essay by CPNL director Kathy Kretman framing the series and outlining the issues to be addressed, please visit the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership's website at http://cpnl.georgetown.edu.
Amoung our largest foundations today, we often hear it said that America cannot make further racial progress until it appreciates the importance of "structural racism."
According to this theory, we should draw little comfort from the considerable abatement in individual racist attitudes and behaviors over the past decades.
For today, the real racism is reflected in and perpetuated by the most fundamental structures of American society, including housing, education, criminal justice, health care and so forth.
Indeed, so oppressive are American institutions that it would be foolish for us, in this view, to expect much relief from purely American political principles.
So it becomes necessary to look elsewhere, beyond the narrow confines of our Constitution and laws, for assistance.
Gara LaMarche is one of the leaders in the effort to direct our attention to international human rights as a transcendent and superior source of philosophical support for the effort to uproot American structural racism.
One of the great promises of international human rights, as expressed in the Ford Foundation's report Close to Home, is that they assert "the inalienability of rights in a much broader sense than has ever been expressed constitutionally" in America.
Beyond the limited political and civil rights of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, human rights include a fulsome range of economic, social, and cultural rights.
Among those are rights to adequate wages, food, shelter, clothing, education, health care, and so forth, the pursuit of which would finally enable us to overcome structural racism.
There's something a little too neat about this approach. Policy proposals that have not fared particularly well in the forum of public opinion – the abolition of the death penalty, the equalization of education taxes, the pursuit of comparable worth and affirmative action, the provision of a living wage, suppression of hate speech, more open borders, and so forth – are not properly matters for public deliberation at all, we are suddenly told.
Rather, they've already been decided once and for all in the realm of human rights. And they've been decided in a manner invariably and suspiciously close to the solutions desired all along by liberalism. As the Church Lady says, "How convenient!"
It's no surprise, then, that unlike traditional American political rights which tend to limit government, economic and social rights instead call for government's infinite expansion. How else to insure that everyone's rights to housing, jobs, education, and so forth are fully satisfied?
But beyond transparent partisanship, there's a much larger problem. The embrace of international human rights calls into question one of the central convictions of America's age-old struggle against racism – the conviction that the principles of our own Declaration of Independence and Constitution are necessary and sufficient allies in that struggle.
Whenever that struggle has triumphed, it's because it didn't have to resort to abstract and unfamiliar notions of moral obligation drawn from obscure theoretical treatises or international treaties.
Rather, it has simply been able to point to our founding principles and insist that all Americans live up to their own deeply familiar and beloved professions of equal rights for all.
Such was the lesson taught by the great American statesman Frederick Douglass, when he challenged the radical abolitionist view that the American Constitution should be dismissed as a pro-slavery "covenant with death and an agreement with Hell."
They were thereby throwing away the chief instrument in the struggle for equality. He insisted instead that it was a "glorious liberty document."
And so he was able to go before white audiences not as a meek supplicant for altruistic charity, not as an arid philosopher teaching an obscure, cosmic theory of morality, but rather as an indignant, righteous prophet, pouring scorn upon his listeners for hypocritically failing to live up to their own most revered constitutional promises.
Ever since, the leaders of successful efforts to advance racial justice have reverted to this call to Americans to live up to their own most cherished convictions, to be true to their own best selves.
Dr. Martin Luther King famously noted that "When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir."
Senator Barack Obama's recent speech "A More Perfect Union," took note of the stain of slavery in our founding, but went on to argue that "Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law."
By contrast, the new effort to battle racism by appealing to international human rights suggests that the Declaration and Constitution are no longer adequate to move us toward our aspirations. But what are we really giving up, when we leave our founding documents behind?
Instead of the unmistakable, bedrock commitment to equality etched therein, we are urged to rely on unsettled, abstract, ethereal doctrines of human rights, typically developed in international fora dominated by nations whose hypocrisy with regard to rights even Frederick Douglass himself could scarcely shame.
Instead of relying on founding principles familiar to and cherished by all reasonably informed Americans, the new human rights effort, in the words of the Ford Foundation, seeks to "reshape U.S. society according to a philosophy and framework of rights that most people have not heard of and have been taught to think of as foreign."
But whatever those rights are, as Mr. LaMarche put it three years ago, they must be "inclusive and dynamic, given content and force in every generation by those who claim them." Which is to say, they must fluctuate with the fads and fashions of the time, rather than be found in enduring documents.
Frederick Douglass said of the American Constitution that it is "no vague, indefinite, floating, unsubstantial, ideal something, coloured according to any man's fancy." I fear the same cannot be said of international human rights.
Every successful American struggle against racism, from the fight against slavery on, has been rooted in the conviction that our founding documents and principles provide all we need to make progress toward equality. That's because Americans have consented to govern themselves according to those principles.
When we demand instead fulfillment of a lengthy wish list of ill-defined rights – of which most Americans have not heard, and to which they most definitely have not consented – we may be doing the cause of racial progress more harm than good.
Senior Fellow William A. Schambra is the director of Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.
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