Within the span of a few months, appalling challenges to America's professed human rights vision have played out nightly on the evening news. The most well-known examples — Breonna Taylor, shot while asleep in her Kentucky home, Ahmaud Arbery, gunned down while jogging in Georgia and George Floyd in Minneapolis, who suffocated when a white officer pinned him down with a knee to the neck — are the tragic details in a larger story. America's failing human rights commitment.
Each news story tragically bears witness to the ongoing assaults on black lives, black freedom and black dignity. These attacks are visible evidence of America's growing tolerance for a diminished and shrunken commitment to a social justice agenda.
We, the people, are coming undone.
The problem just that individual actors went rogue and the long-term solution will not be found in firing and prosecuting individual miscreants. It is, however, a beginning that may quell the flames of wrath. But it won't fix our sick system.
The problem that is killing our move to equality is white privilege. And white privilege survives because of the efficacy of hate.
Think of hate as the highly contagious virus that has infected the body politic, but it is people of color that have been hardest hit by this pathogen and are now gasping for air. While White America reaps the benefits of privilege, Black and brown people pay the emotional toll in micro-aggressions, unconscious bias, White fragility, police brutality. Some pay the ultimate price with their lives.
The destruction of the human rights of marginalized people has a long 400-year history with moments of progress followed by vicious backlash. The result is white privilege survives at the expense of a more racially harmonious country. A 2017 Pew Research Center poll showed that most Americans believed that race relations are deteriorating. The past couple of months have only deepened that perception.
Human rights organizations, like the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission, which I lead, must rethink how to handle the hate-fueled issues of the 21st century. The human rights commission concept was born out of another turbulent time - the riot crises of the 1960's and the problems facing cities including housing, education and economics. In 1965, the Watts riot lead to the creation of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission, the first human rights authority. Now commissions exist throughout the country, each charged with addressing racial discrimination and improving fair housing.
But we need to build on our half century of experience to alleviate this pandemic hate. Commissions have traditionally awaited injured parties to seek them out but each night we see on the news evidence that we must provide more outreach. Our society is fracturing under the weight of inequality.
I'm advocating a tri-fold approach that includes deep analysis of public, private and governmental agencies to determine the state of racism in an agency. The second step is to help agencies and businesses hold meaningful but difficult conversations around race within their organizations. And finally, but most importantly, human rights professionals have to enter the education space.
There must be ongoing human rights education that begins in the elementary years. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education."
Chad Dion Lassiter, MSW, is Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. Originally published by The Patriot-News at pennlive.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.