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Attack on Civil Rights: SPLC contributes to UN special report on state of minorities in the US

Millions of Americans, particularly people of color, are facing growing inequality, discrimination and even exclusion, including inequitable access to education and voter rights, according to a new United Nations report on minority issues in the United States.

The report – which highlights the critical nature of attacks on civil rights across the country – includes information from various teams at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Fernand de Varennes, special rapporteur on minority issues for the United Nations, visited the U.S. last November to evaluate the current situation of minorities in this country. He met with the SPLC and other civil rights organizations.

With help from the SPLC, Varennes identified ways that the United States government could meet its international obligations related to minority rights, such as equality for all, antiracism, education equity and addressing hate crimes.

The report, released on March 22, widely reflects the SPLC’s input as the organization embarks on new, international advocacy efforts.

“As the special rapporteur has reported, the rights of people of color in the U.S. are under assault from those who seek to diminish democracy and equality through barriers to voting, depriving communities of color of equal investment and creating a hostile environment in education institutions,” said Margaret Huang, SPLC president and CEO. “Now, more than ever, we must call out these attacks on democracy and equality wherever we see them and urge the U.S. government to comply with its international legal obligations to protect human rights for all.”

In his report, Varennes wrote: “The United States is a nation of paradoxes when it comes to human rights and minorities. The land that welcomes the world’s tired, poor and huddled masses is also the land where support for slavery led to one of the world’s most brutal civil wars, where racial segregation persisted into the 20th century, and where indigenous peoples’ experiences have for centuries been one of dispossession and even brutality.”

Among his findings, Varennes reported that the onslaught of new voting restrictions leaves the right to vote in jeopardy and nearly out of reach for many people of color.

“The conclusion of the Special Rapporteur is that many of the obstacles minorities face in the exercise of the right and opportunity to vote by universal and equal suffrage are unreasonable and therefore discriminatory and clear violations of one of the pillars of international human rights law, and the phenomenon – and undermining of democracy – is increasing,” the report says. “Human rights, and especially the equal right to vote, are moving backwards for minorities in the United States.”

Devastating impacts

Caren Short is senior supervising attorney for the SPLC’s Voting Rights Practice Group, which shared its extensive expertise for the report.

“Racial gerrymandering, closing polling places, voter purges and burdens on absentee voting have had a devastating impact,” Short said. “Another devastating impact affecting voter rights includes mass incarceration, leading to felony disenfranchisement. Millions of voters – disproportionately voters of color – are unable to vote because of a previous felony conviction, even though they have served their sentence.

“These laws were originally passed to disenfranchise Black men and continue to have that effect today. It was important that we highlight the impact these laws are having on the Deep South, where SPLC is actively fighting against felony disenfranchisement and its impact.” 

Michael Tafelski, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC’s Children’s Rights Practice Group, also contributed to the report.

“When voters of color have their voices and the ability to advocate in government diminished by state-created barriers, our communities are deprived of investment and fair treatment,” Tafelski said. “One of the most notable ways this impacts communities is through education. Children in these communities are deprived of equitable school funding and access to quality education.”

Varennes noted the attack against children’s rights and how it affects minority groups in particular. 

“Students belonging to minority groups are often enrolled in public schools in communities with concentrated poverty and, therefore, are more often provided fewer resources and educational opportunities,” Varennes wrote. “Too often these are linked to lower educational opportunities.”

Tafelski noted that extremists spread misinformation to undermine public schools in support of a privatization agenda.

“They have taken over school boards and promote hateful and extremist speech, while blocking educators from providing an honest education about racism and other forms of discrimination,” he said. “This creates a highly concerning environment for children facing significant barriers to a high-quality education. The federal government must protect the rights of schoolchildren to receive an honest and inclusive education in our nation’s public schools.”

‘Our work will continue’

With information from the SPLC’s Intelligence Project – which documents and analyzes the threat from far-right extremists – Varennes also reported on the state of hate crimes and how hateful expressions turn into discrimination or violence.  

He noted that hate crime laws at the federal level and in most states prohibit violence and threats motivated by race, color, religion, national origin and other protected categories and that the FBI has now elevated hate crimes to its highest-level national threat priority. This has led to increased resources aimed at preventing and investigating hate crimes, he stated in the report, but is undermined by the voluntary reporting and underreporting of hate crimes.

Rachel Carroll Rivas, lead senior research analyst for the Intelligence Project, said the SPLC has pushed policymakers to address the threat of white supremacy, extremism and anti-democracy efforts.

“We welcome the elevated attention paid by the Biden administration to countering domestic extremism, but more must be done, with a greater emphasis on prevention, rather than enforcement,” Carroll Rivas said. “The same old framework steeped in the same bias won’t work. That’s why we were glad to take our concerns to the international stage and contribute to the report.”

The SPLC contributed information to Varennes’ report, which states: “Anti-Semitism, Anti-Asian speech, Islamophobia, derogatory slurs against Hispanic, Arab and other minority communities and anti-immigration xenophobia are surging, sometimes at record levels, in the whole country. These appear to be creating real societal harm and cleavages in the country with xenophobia, scapegoating and scaremongering mainly aimed at minorities.”

The Intelligence Project will continue to sound the alarm and create resources to help track and expose the hard right, as well as engage in prevention and countering efforts, Carroll Rivas said.

“The report is in, but our work will continue, and we encourage communities and leaders to expand services for those who are targeted by hate groups and redouble their work to prevent political violence and protect our democracy threatened by antigovernment groups.”

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