AUSTIN, Texas — Genocide is a word which may bring to mind images of large-scale ethnic cleansing and mass graves like those created by German Nazis or Bosnian Serbs. Some acts of genocide, however, are slower, more subtle, and a good deal more insidious, like the acts the United States continues to carry out against its black- and brown-skinned population.
The word “genocide” was defined in the 1940s, as the world struggled to deal with the massive body count from Nazi Germany, whose supporters killed some 6 million Jews and another 5 million from other groups like Roma Gypsies, LGBTQ people, and citizens of Russia and Poland. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, ratified in 1951, defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” This includes not just killing and bodily harm, but also any deliberate acts which make survival difficult or impossible, like the removal of children from their families. While the Nazis were explicit about their policies of racial extermination, the convention admits that in most cases, genocide “must be inferred from a systematic pattern of coordinated acts.”
One of the most well-known groups to argue that the U.S. is committing genocide against its black population was the Civil Rights Congress, an advocacy group formed in 1948. The Civil Rights Congress opposed racial injustice in the U.S., particularly within the criminal justice system. In December 1951, they presented a paper, “We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief From a Crime of The United States Government Against the Negro People,” at U.N. meetings in Paris. This document outlined both the historic and modern oppression of black Americans, from murders by lynching to police brutality, but also documented systematic inequalities in quality of life and health care.
Over 60 years later, another group took the name “We Charge Genocide” and brought their concerns to the United Nations once again, showing how systematic inequality and oppression had not gone away in the ensuing decades. Appearing before the U.N. in late November, this group of activists presented a report documenting a repeated and disturbing pattern of violence and killings of black and and Latino youth by the Chicago Police Department. The U.N. Committee Against Torture responded by condemning pervasive police violence and demanding that steps be taken to ensure the officers’ responsible were held accountable.
Of course, these problems aren’t unique to Chicago. In October, ProPublica reported that young black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than whites. Figures are similar for police killings of Native Americans and Latino Americans. And genocide in the U.S. isn’t limited to just police murder: The U.S. rate of incarceration, which is the highest in the world, targets black people more than any other. Black people are incarcerated at roughly six times the rate of whites. While some studies have shown black crime rates higher than white for some crimes, most experts agree that poverty is a bigger factor than race when it comes to crime rates, suggesting that most crime epidemics could be alleviated through greater equality.
Even U.S. schools seem designed to tear families apart and take children away from their parents, a key factor in identifying genocide. The so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” criminalizes student misbehavior, and the system that pushes offending students out of school and into the criminal justice system disproportionately affects non-white students.
Problems in health care and quality of life are also apparent. In January 2014, Psychology Today highlighted what it called “The Silent Genocide in Black America,” an epidemic of heart problems in America’s black population that cannot be blamed on genetic factors:
“Forty-nine percent of black men and 46% of black women have some form of heart disease in the U.S. Once, medicine mistakenly attributed this to Sub-Saharan genetic predisposition for hypertension. However, a World Health Organization study compared blood pressures in blacks from Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, and the U.S. The study found the following gradient from lowest to highest: African, Caribbean, and American. A racial admixture study of blood pressure by Harvard geneticists, which studied over a thousand subjects, found no connection between Sub-Saharan African ancestry and hypertension.”
In 2012, Glenn Ford, editor of Black Agenda Report, wrote that the crime of genocide was meant to be “more than a kind of legal epitaph for the dead,” which is why the U.N. included other crimes besides killing, such as mass incarceration. While Americans are reluctant to call this genocide, Ford imagined what an alien visitor, free of cultural prejudices, would see when visiting the U.S.:
“ET would quickly learn that one out of every eight incarcerated persons in the world is African American – about 12 percent of the inmates on Planet Earth – although Black Americans make up less than six tenths of one percent of the global population. ET would recognize that such numbers can only mean that a genocide is in progress, that African Americans have been singled out for some horrible fate by the U.S. government.
We cannot sit and wait for the post-mortem. We charge genocide, now!”