Human Rights in the United States

Human Rights in the United States: Beginning at Home

In recent history, the United States government and many organizations in the United States have often talked about human rights as if they were only relevant to abuses in other countries, although human rights obligations apply to all countries including the United States. Yet, many Americans have always believed that the struggle for human rights is profoundly relevant to our country. One of the earliest uses of the term “human rights” is attributed to Frederick Douglas when he referred to the fundamental rights of enslaved African-Americans at the time when the United States did not recognize their humanity or their rights. 

Despite fierce resistance even today, there has been a growing domestic human rights movement that is committed to the long term vision of ensuring the full range of human rights for all within or at our borders. Economic and social rights are a core part of this human rights vision and few people would hesitate to condemn poor education systems, inadequate health care infrastructure, hunger, scores of families suffering from abject poverty and homelessness, wages that do not support a dignified life, and widespread economic insecurity. Nor would anyone plausibly deny that all of these are sharply evident in the United States. Yet, successive U.S. administrations have explicitly resisted the notion that every person has fundamental economic and social rights to be free from such conditions and failed to reform our legal, political, and economic system to meet people's needs and protect people from the structural inequalities that amount to a systemic assault on human dignity. And there are many voices that still argue that rights such as health care or housing are only commodities that serve market interests. The human rights movement, however, is a platform for voices who argue, intensely and passionately, that this view cannot and must not prevail.

The Call for Economic and Social Rights: A Revolution of Values

Economic and social rights are a natural, and in fact necessary, outgrowth of U.S. founding ideals of equality, freedom and human dignity. Social movement leaders have often recognized this relationship. Around the time of his launching the Poor People’s Campaign, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to this stating:

“We read one day. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.That they endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But if a man doesn’t have job or an income, he has neither life, nor liberty and the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.” —Martin Luther King, Jr. (March 1968)

Issuing a dramatic challenge, Dr. King called for a Bill of Economic Rights and recognized that:

“We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society. We have been in a reform movement… But after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together…you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.” —Martin Luther King, Jr. (May 1967)

Bringing economic and social rights home is a central part of putting our house in order and living up to our ideals. Neither charity nor temporary policy shifts will protect the basic dignity and equality of the ever larger number of people within the United States who are being pushed out to the margins of our increasingly harsh economy. Moreover, lack of resources is not the cause of any of these harms imposed on individuals, families and communities. Even in this economic downturn, the United States has the capacity to meet the needs of all its people. We do not really face a housing crisis. Instead, we face a policy crisis evidenced by the fact that while we have so many people without homes, we continue to allow an ever increasing number of homes to go empty without people. Irrational and unjust policy choices impact almost every economic and social rights issue facing people in the United States today. We need a vision for economic and social rights that would guide us towards a more just society consistent with our founding ideals.