|Racism and First Amendment
for Human Rights
Racists in the United States have always been able to cloak their
ideas in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which governs
freedom of speech. That our legal system not only shields racists but
allows farmbelt Fuhrers like Gary Lauck to export hate around the world
like nuclear waste can be confusing to anti-fascists in other countries.
This article will explain some of the workings of the First Amendment,
show how racists manipulate freedom of speech to commit terrorism in the
U.S., and discuss how anti-racists can challenge fascist propaganda,
individuals and organizations by using international human rights law.
Understanding the First Amendment
The United States has distinctive political principles and values
that define its national identity. The First Amendment says that
"Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of
speech." The amendment was designed to insure that the debate on
public issues is "uninhibited, robust and wide open." Those
who believe absolutely in the First Amendment believe that racist ideas
deserve as much protection as any other idea in a free democracy --
perhaps even more because of their odious content. Absolutists
often quote Supreme Court jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes who declared that
"the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself
accepted in the competition of the market." This "marketplace
of ideas" approach is supposed to encourage the free exchange of
ideas and a rational process by which listeners can choose the best
ideas and ignore others.
Such interpretations are insufficiently conscious of the social
reality of uneven power relationships between racists and their targets.
Absolutists ignore the persistent inequality in the power of oppressed
groups to communicate their ideas in the marketplace, just like Bill
Gates can keep other companies from selling computer operating systems.
In fact, the dominant group not only has the greater power to
communicate their ideas, but they even have more credibility doing so.
Inequities in racial power makes competition in the social marketplace
purely hypothetical. There is no space not already occupied by the
dominant white culture.
Manipulating the First Amendment
U.S. courts consistently fail to acknowledge that the purpose of
racist speech is to continue the subordination of one people by another.
This leads to a legalistic distinction between acts that constitute
racial terrorism and the words and ideas that motivate the attackers. In
our country, acts — assault, battery, vandalism, arson, murder,
lynchings, physical harassment — are punishable under our court
system. But words — like nigger — or symbols — such
as Nazi swastikas or burning crosses -- are protected by the courts as
acts of individual expression. To protect the status quo of white
domination, our legal justice system first formally excluded African
Americans from equality, and it now stands passively aside while private
actors do the dirty work of legitimating social inequality and silencing
U.S. courts have not always privileged white racists to express
themselves at the expense of the safety of African Americans and other
people of color. A pertinent Supreme Court case was decided in 1952
after two race riots in Illinois in which more than one hundred men,
women and children were killed, forcing another 6,000 African Americans
to flee the state. In that case, Beauharnais v. Illinois, the
head of the White Circle League distributed a leaflet declaring that
African Americans would terrorize white neighborhoods with "rapes,
robberies, knives, guns and marijuana." The pamphleteer was
convicted when the court decided that libelous statements aimed at
groups of people, like those aimed at individuals, fall outside First
Amendment protection. While it was certainly a victory for the
anti-racist movement, this decision did not go far enough in banning the
activities of racist individuals, largely because the government was not
yet ready to outlaw its own racist policies. The Brown v. Board of
Education school desegregation decision occurred two years later in
On the other hand, the current Supreme Court is dominated by the
right wing. Its interpretations disconnect racial terrorism from the
harm inflicted on victims. In 1992, the court decided in R.A.V. vs.
St. Paul that a cross burned in the front yard of an African
American family by white teenagers was a form of protected symbolic
speech. This decision effectively trumped the family’s right to live
in their home free from racial terrorism. Using the artificial
distinction between speech and action, the Court decided that the act
of burning a cross to intimidate a black family was equivalent to
freedom of speech.
Fighting Human Wrongs with Human Rights
Anti-racists must lead the way in ensuring that our social vision of
justice again triumphs over the cruder vision of equality limited by
white supremacy. The government has a constitutional obligation to
eliminate obstacles that prevent equal participation in society. Racial
discrimination undermines a person’s or a group’s humanity. Racist
speech, which not only silences its victims but denies them credibility
in the eyes of the public at large, should be regulated.
Courts have often recognized that the right of free speech is not
absolute. They have limited free speech when it becomes libel, incites a
riot, threatens an elected official, or conspires to monopolize
industries. Bans on cigarette advertising or liquor sales also narrow
free speech. Anti-racists must become First Amendment realists who argue
that individuals harmed by racist speech and symbols should be able to
sue under defamation laws, intentional infliction of emotional distress
laws, and/or assault and battery laws.
Moreover, racism is a violation of human rights, as stated in the
International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
ratified by the U.S. government in 1994. Article 2 of this international
human rights treaty requires that governments "prohibit and bring
to an end, by all appropriate means..., racial discrimination by any
[private] person, group or organization." CERD goes further to say
in Article 4 that "States will condemn all propaganda and
organizations which are based on ideas or theories of superiority of one
race...or which attempt to justify or promote racial hatred...and will
adopt positive measures to eradicate such incitement
The Race Convention is the only treaty that deals comprehensively
with the elimination of all incidents of racial discrimination at the
local, state and federal level, and supports positive actions by states,
such as affirmative action, that are under attack in the United States.
The treaty not only protects the right of a black family to buy a home,
but also protects all African Americans from discrimination so that they
may live in the neighborhood of their choice. In this way, the treaty
not only protects individual rights, but also collective rights as a
members of a group.
When ratifying the CERD treaty, the U.S. government decided to make a
reservation to Article 4 saying that "suppression and
criminalization of certain expression" such as racist speech and
organizations is "inconsistent with existing First Amendment
principles." Even while the ink was drying on the treaty, the
government reaffirmed the constitutional shield for racists by declining
to enforce this provision of the treaty.
The anti-racist movement now must build a human rights movement in
the United States that will force the repeal of this crippling
reservation to the Race Convention. We can use international human
rights standards to develop effective laws to halt the worldwide spread
of the dangerous virus of racism. By bringing human rights home,
contagious boxes of hate literature will no longer be shipped around the
world with labels saying, "Made in America."
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