The United States has always prided itself on its constitutional virtues: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Citizens believe these rights to be inalienable, yet the government has used measures, such as solitary confinement, the death penalty and torture, that rob humans of their rights. Ultimately, the inalienability of these civil liberties only lasts as long as people stay within the bounds of the law. We accept that rights are really only privileges given and taken by the state.
Elections in the United States are a perfect example of the nation’s issues with human rights. Women have only been able to vote for a century, black people for only 50 years. In 10 states, local constitutions bar ex-felons from voting. Virginia was among them until Governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order to restore voting liberty to ex-felons who have served their parole and probation time. This comes at a crucial time in the election process: of the 200,000 people getting their voting rights back, most are black and most are expected to vote for the Democratic Party. Coincidentally, McAuliffe is a Democrat himself. Although this issuance may have an ulterior motive, the underlying effect — restoring the basic, democratic right to vote to 200,000 human beings — is indisputably positive.
It is important to note that laws such as these overwhelmingly disenfranchise people of color. With systemic issues such as the school-to-prison pipeline — the policy and practices that push certain demographics of students from schools into prisons — black men, especially in the United States, end up in prison more often for longer periods of time than white convicts for similar crimes. This creates a disadvantage for the black voter population in the U.S. If more black people are serving sentences for longer periods of time, there are consistently less black voters by percentage in each election cycle. This injustice persists simply because black interests are not being represented in the larger scheme of American politics, and the disparity directly translates into the policies that get passed.
In recent U.S. history, it seems the largest social justice movements are aimed at returning human rights to citizens. One of the largest movements of this era is Black Lives Matter, which at its center argues that black people have a fundamental right to life, even in the face of abusive police. It’s sad that even now that these goals are still thought of as ideations, instead of being the common-sense fact that every life has the same weight and every person has the same rights. The day each citizen enjoys full access to their inalienable civil liberties is the day the U.S. will know equity, and from there progress can march forward.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 25 print edition. Email Connor Borden at [email protected]