Last month I issued a communication to NC legislators regarding my concerns that laws, like the NC Voter ID law, may represent something far more serious than just an obstruction of a civil right. This posting contains a reproduction of a follow-up communication recently issued to the same legislators: Representative Nelson Dollar and Senator Tamara Barringer, with copy to Democratic and Republican leadership in both the NC House (Speaker Thom Tillis and Democratic Leader Larry Hall) and Senate (President Pro-Tem Phil Berger and Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt). Included in this posting are links to references supporting the various points.
The estimated six year shortfall in life expectancy between African-Americans versus white Americans, largely attributable to disproportionate adverse socio-economic conditions created by over two centuries of racist portrayals and discriminatory legislative/policy actions, results in 240 million lost years when applied to a population of nearly 40 million African-Americans (2010 census). The estimated premature loss of life in just the existing African-American population of today totals into the millions of individuals and is conservatively estimated to easily exceed at least ten percent of that population. In considering the potential cumulative loss of life since the beginning of the 20th century, it becomes apparent that the United States is in the midst of an ongoing and prolonged human rights atrocity of considerable magnitude, in direct contrast to our country’s position of being a standard bearer of human rights in the international community. Recent restrictive Voter ID Laws, such as North Carolina’s, that disproportionately disenfranchises the African-American poor, can only work to maintain the adverse conditions that contribute to premature death in a historically discriminated population. The concerns expressed here extend into other political actions such as gerrymandering along racial lines that effectively reduces African-American representation. Further, these concerns are held to represent serious human rights issues that violate at least three treaties both signed and ratified by the United States.
I wrote you last month, as my elected representatives, regarding my concerns that the NC Voter ID Law (as well as other similar laws enacted in other states) represents something far more serious than just an obstruction of a civil right – perhaps contributing to a serious and ongoing human rights atrocity in our country. As noted in my last correspondence, although such a law disproportionately affects several demographic groups, I will focus on our African-American population, a population that has historically faced racist behavior and discriminatory policy/legislative actions in our state. At issue is the widely recognized shortfall in African-American life expectancy from birth versus white Americans, and the direct link of such loss of life to adverse socio-economic conditions that have been largely created by a history of racism spanning over two centuries.
This matter caught my attention because of my background in biomedical research and healthcare product development. I noted, from life expectancy data, what had to be a disproportionate level of premature death in African-Americans versus white Americans. The very first starting point in assessing adverse effects is an analysis of deaths, and it is widely recognized that African-Americans are disproportionately affected by adverse socio-economic conditions that contribute to early death. Additionally, as stated in a research paper from the field of actuarial science (that also noted the disparity in life expectancy between African-Americans and white Americans): “Life expectancy at birth is a widely accepted measure of quality of life in a society, summarizing in a single number all the natural and man-made damages that can affect an individual, ranging from poor health care systems and civil war to unhealthy nutrition and sexual behavior. It is commonly used to compare levels of public health among populations, as it summarizes mortality at all ages and is not affected by the age distribution of a population”.
To understand the magnitude of lost life to which I draw attention, and recognizing that there is variation in life expectancy figures depending on the source (but are in the same direction), I use results of a recent study where the average of life expectancies for males and females in both the African-American and white American populations results in a 6 year shortfall. Although that shortfall may not seem to be that much to the casual observer, when it is applied to a population of almost 40 million African-Americans (the 2010 census figure), the outcome is a loss of 240 million years for African-Americans versus white Americans. That equates to the full life expectancies of over three million individuals. However, as these lost lives occur at less than full life expectancy, the actual loss of individual life would undoubtedly be much higher, no doubt easily exceeding 10% of today’s African-American population. And this loss of life occurs across a broad range of age – as examples: per a recent CDC study, black infants are nearly twice as likely to die in the first year as white infants, and premature black infants are three times more likely to die during their first year than premature white babies; as compiled by the Children’s Defense Fund, black males aged 15-19 were 8 times as likely as white males of the same age to be killed in a gun homicide in 2009; and the toll on longevity from untreated silent diseases (a result of disproportionate income/wealth inequality and poverty in the African-American population) such as hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease occurs later in life. When considering the cumulative loss of life due to the effects of racism dating back to, say, the beginning of the 20th century, we are undoubtedly in the midst of an ongoing atrocity of unspeakable proportions. I believe it to be no coincidence that both Native Americans and African-Americans experience the two shortest life expectancies of other ‘race’ groups in our country – both have been the subject of human rights atrocities that have had enduring effects.
My belief is that this horrific loss of life has been largely missed as a human rights atrocity because much of the death is silent and the dots were not connected to understand the actual magnitude. These lost lives do not come across our TV sets as do the horrific and emotionally-charged images of mass graves, violent attacks, refugee villages, or bodies hanging from tree limbs as do the explicit expressions of other atrocities. But the lost lives from the insidious and silent effects of racism dwarf those lost from the explicit (overt) expressions of such bias.
In our state, the effects of racism on longevity are in plain sight. Education, for example, is key to hiring (that is interestingly also affected by discrimination simply on the basis of name alone), workplace competitiveness, and attaining economic well-being that promotes health and longevity. Recent proficiency testing in our state showed a staggering difference across racial lines regarding Common Core State Standard Results where only 30% of black students scored at or above proficiency versus 73% of their white classmates. To this writer’s knowledge, there is no evidence supporting that individuals with dark skin tones have decreased intellectual capacity versus those with light skin tones – the conditions leading to this disparity in test results have been created through a long history of discriminatory treatment resulting in disproportionate socio-economic conditions. But when these proficiency results are linked to premature loss of life, the action of the Wake County School Board in recent times to dismantle diversity programs becomes a heinous one.
I obtained opinion from a legal scholar, and distinguished professor of law, in the field of human rights. It was stated that the concerns expressed here represent serious human rights issues that violate international treaties that the U.S. has both signed and ratified. The key treaty was the International Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), but that the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention Against Torture (CAT) also pertained to these issues. Another important treaty pertinent to these concerns is the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (IESCR) which the U.S. has signed but not ratified. The US report on CERD is currently under review and I’m contacting human rights groups to obtain interest in issuing a ‘shadow report’ to the UN oversight committee regarding the concerns expressed here.
Actual in-person voter ID fraud, as reviewed in my last correspondence, has been found to be a virtually non-existent event both in NC and across the country. The recent push for such laws is being pursued almost exclusively, if not entirely, by the Republican party and the demographic groups most affected are disproportionately weighted to those who tend to vote for the Democratic Party. It is inappropriate to treat all states as being similar regarding such laws. There are a number of states enacting restrictive voter ID laws (NC being one) that span the Gulf states and up the Eastern seaboard to NC and beyond that are home to a disproportionate share of this nation’s African-American poor (the so-called ‘Black Belt’). Many of these are states that have resisted integration and were left embittered by federal intervention that resulted in the ‘White Flight’ from the Democratic Party (part of the call for reduced federal government in the evolution of today’s Tea Party ultraconservative political right). Research conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice has shown that in “the 13 contiguous ‘black belt’ counties in Mississippi, 11 contiguous ‘black belt’ counties in Alabama, and 21 contiguous ‘black belt’ counties in Georgia…all state driver’s license offices are open two days per week or less”, and that many of the rural African-American poor face long distances without benefit of transportation.
As but one example of the level of racial hatred expressed in one such state, just a mere four decades ago the city of Montgomery, AL, struck a ‘behind the scenes’ deal the the city’s YMCA to provide recreation services for the city (the YMCA could, as a private institution, restrict participation) while intentionally bulldozing the city’s own swimming pools to prevent the mixing of African-American and white citizens. (As an aside, this matter and the resultant law suit on behalf of an African-American mother and her young sons proved to be a seminal event in Morris Dees’ career as a pre-eminent civil rights attorney and a founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who recently gave testimony before the Congressional Black Caucus on Race and Justice in America). Such deeply held racial bias and ill-will does not disappear over the course of a couple of generations, and the SCOTUS ruling gutting the VRA is showing itself to be a poor one.
I have shared my concerns and the legal opinion on the violation of human rights treaties with the office a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus (whose Legislative Director directed me to various human rights organizations), as well as two prominent US civil rights organizations. Additionally, I am in process of communicating with the US Department of Justice as well as seeking interest from human rights groups in filing a shadow report to the ongoing CERD review.
There should be little doubt that, through disenfranchisement, such laws are working to maintain the adverse socio-economic conditions that are contributing to a massive premature loss of life in a historically discriminated population by obstructing the ability of the African-American poor to exercise a civil right. Such concerns extend into other legislative actions such as gerrymandering along racial lines that effectively reduce African American representation.
In closing I wish to make clear that there is no financial motive in the work I do; I receive no compensation and represent no organization or association. Rather, I made the decision several years ago to apply my background in science, healthcare, and business to political and social issues such as gun violence, civil rights, healthcare, and tax/economic policy. I see far too much disregard for human life on the political right these days couched in ideologic language. Our gun-related homicide rate dwarfs that of other industrialized Western democracies, yet the political right speaks of protecting Second Amendment constitutional rights (and make no mistake that the gun laws recently enacted by our NC legislature have increased risk of injury and death to our citizenry, including children and their parents, to the ultimate financial benefit of the firearms industry). Where our healthcare system was allowing the loss of 45,000 of our citizens every year due to lack of access to essential care (and we being the only industrialized Western democracy that permits this), the political right speaks that we must not become a Socialist country being but a step away from communism. When it comes to cutting food stamps and other safety net programs to the needy by stating we need to assure our future solvency through strict austerity measures (which have been shown to resoundingly fail economically in other countries – ref ref) while supporting measures contributing to income and wealth inequality comparable to that of the Gilded Age, the political right does so with the certainty that some victims of poverty, including children, will unnecessarily lose their lives. When it comes to laws that obstruct the voting rights of a historically discriminated population and thus contribute to maintaining conditions that contribute to a staggering loss of life, the political right speaks of having to assure the integrity of our voting system when the system was under no such threat.
I know I speak for many when I say that such behavior represents neither a compassionate nor just America.