Viewing Ferguson Through a Human Rights Lens

November 25, 2014


The events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri, are being watched around the world. The way the grand jury’s decision and its aftermath are being perceived abroad may be categorically different than how they are understood in the U.S., according to Harvard Kennedy School historian and associate professor Moshik Temkin on this week’s episode of PolicyCast.

What we define in the U.S. as a “civil rights” struggle is often perceived beyond our borders as a matter of human rights – and the difference is not just semantic, says Temkin.

Listen and Subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher or MP3.



Excerpts from the PolicyCast interview: 

Temkin:  If you look at issues of minority rights that we have in the United States, for the most part it has been framed as a civil rights struggle. What that means is that historically the civil rights movement makes a claim and a demand that American society live up to the creed and the ethos and the words in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. So it really highlights the dissonance, or the gap, between the promise of the American dream and the American reality. But it does hold that promise that America is itself capable – with great struggle and great sacrifice – of attaining that level of closing that gap eventually. So that is really the civil rights struggle as a domestic concern and it is a national problem.

But another way to look at the problems that African-Americans have faced and are still facing is to look at it not so much in the way the civil rights leaders tended to view it or still view it today, but to look at it in the way that other black leaders in the past such as Malcolm X and James Baldwin and others tended to view the problem, which is actually as a human rights issue first of all, before it is a civil rights issue. That is, that the U.S. in its mistreatment of black people historically needs to be held to international standards of human rights and that African-Americans as a group need to have group rights acknowledged by the United States but also by the international community before we can then talk about the domestic issue.

So the human rights viewpoint of the African American issue tends to internationalize the problem, it tends to view it as an issue that has to do also with the relationship between Americans and non-Americans, between the United States and international institutions, whereas the civil rights movement tends to focus on what’s happening at home. …

History points us in certain directions in trying to analyze where we are today. The way that most Americans study civil rights progress in the 1950s and 60s is: there was slavery, followed by civil war, followed by reconstruction, followed by decades of segregation, racial violence, and Jim Crow. And then a civil rights struggle emerges from the grass roots and through a combination of that civil rights struggle, plus legal break throughs and good moral leadership from the top, the civil rights struggle gains progress – the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. This is a narrative that unites many Americans around this idea of progress: that we are able to overcome some of these injustices and live up to the American Dream.

The other side of this that people know less about is that there was enormous international geopolitical incentive for policymakers in this country to drive through these kind of changes and they had to do with the cold war and the need to convince people around the world that the U.S. was a place where minorities could enjoy basic civil rights: the right to vote, the right to move, the right to be in the same public spaces as others, the right to a good education.

There was a fierce propaganda battle going on then between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and because so many of the negative images that were going on around the world of the brutalizing of civil rights protesters were causing diplomatic damage – that’s what really forced our leaders to step in at many major junctures in order to propel change. …

A continuation of this narrative is that now that we have a black president, civil rights wins! The reality in this country is much different. The reality is that many African Americans live in unfair, unequal conditions and they are suffering from institutional and other racism in other domains of American life. I think that many Americans are very upset, even stunned when events like Ferguson happen. Not so much by the shooting of a young black male – because that happens unfortunately very often – but more by the reaction. “Why would people protest so angrily in a place like Ferguson when their situation is supposedly so much better than it was in the 1950s and 1960s?”  Well, it’s not necessarily much better for so many of these people and they still live through many of the problems that the civil rights struggle has been about.

In terms of whether today we have a lack of geopolitical incentives – it’s true we don’t have the same kind of struggle that served as the context during the cold war. But human rights as an issue is a foundation, at least officially, of American foreign policy. … The problem is that what has been happening in Ferguson is seen by many people around the world as a human rights issue, even if Americans don’t quite see it this way.

These events received astounding coverage all over the world, especially in countries that are often accused themselves by the US as human rights violators:  Egypt, Iran, China, Russia. We need to view these reactions with a grain of salt – these countries are eager to throw the criticism right back at the critics. But the U.S does have a prerogative in foreign affairs to convince many peoples around the world that they are promoting human rights in those places. That is sometimes the official reason why the United States nowadays actually intervenes. How are you going to convince people around the world that is your bona fide reason for doing so if you are perceived as being unable to maintain basic human rights standards at home? 

As the U.S. continues to be involved around the world, as the U.S. goes back into the Middle East, the issues of what Americans call civil rights but which the rest of the world thinks of as human rights are, I suspect, going to be important once again. It will mean that American policymakers and leaders are going to have to address these issues from the top because they may be used again as a form of resistance to American involvement and intervention abroad.

Tags: Missouri Missouri

Moshik Temkin

Moshik Temkin, associate professor of public policy

Photo Credit: Muriel Rouyer

"I think that many Americans are very upset, even stunned when events like Ferguson happen. Not so much by the shooting of a young black male – because that happens unfortunately very often – but more by the reaction."



John F. Kennedy School of Government 79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-495-1100 Get Directions Visit Contact Page