The following is a reproduction of electronic correspondence sent to NC Speaker Tillis and NC Senate President Pro-Tem Berger on February 4, 2014, as well as other North Carolina lawmakers identified in the press as attempting to quash subpoenas requesting disclosure of communications during the process of changing the state’s voting laws. Included are Sen. Bob Rucho, Rep. Ruth Samuelson, Rep. Larry Pittman, and Rep. David Lewis (‘the Harnett County Republican who helped lead the 2011 redrawing of legislative and congressional districts being challenged in court’). Points made here are pertinent to similar laws in other states and links to references have been included.
North Carolina’s recently enacted ‘Voter ID Law’ has prompted lawsuits from multiple parties including the US Justice Department, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, and the American Civil Liberties Union. NC lawmakers have recently attempted to quash subpoenas requesting disclosure of emails and other communications that were exchanged during the process of changing the state’s voting laws. The lawmakers argue that they are protected by “legislative immunity” and should be “free from arrest or civil process for what they do in legislative proceedings.” However, serious issues exist should it be found that lawmakers knew in advance the discriminatory nature of this law. Did lawmakers knowingly put a law into effect that violates legal obligations the US has accepted under an international treaty to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination? Additionally, the deleterious effects of racial discrimination and political marginalization on longevity, health, and childhood development are well-publicized. Did lawmakers knowingly put a law into effect that could only help to sustain, and even create, conditions that contribute to premature death and a host of serious health problems in African-Americans, including impaired childhood development? With our current knowledge base regarding the millions of lost and damaged lives due to the deleterious effects of racial discrimination, laws like NC’s Voter ID law should be viewed as something far more serious than just an obstruction of a civil right.
Dear Speaker Tillis and Senate President Pro-Tem Berger:
I draw reference to a recent newspaper article (Raleigh News & Observer, January 25, 2014) regarding NC lawmakers trying to quash subpoenas requesting disclosure of e-mails and other communications exchanged during the process of changing NC voting laws (HB 589). Although the law has been shown to disproportionately affect a number of groups that tend to vote for the Democratic Party, this correspondence deals with race-based discrimination and will therefore be confined to the extensively studied African-American population. It is important to know if legislators understood, in advance, the racial inequities this law would create for two reasons. First, the law violates legal obligations the United States has accepted under an international treaty it has signed and ratified (formally accepted) to end all forms of racial discrimination. Secondly, as the harmful effects of discrimination on both longevity and health in the African-American community have been well-documented and well-publicized, did lawmakers knowingly put a law in place that could only serve to sustain and even create conditions that result in millions of premature deaths (national level), a host of serious chronic health problems, and impaired childhood development in a historically discriminated population.
International Convention to End all forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)
In 1994 the United States ratified (formally accepted) the United Nations’s ‘International Convention to End all forms of Racial Discrimination’ (ICERD). This international treaty is one of the few that the United States has accepted and is thus legally bound by all its provisions. As described by the United States Human Rights Network, the treaty’s standards are held to be ‘higher than those contained in domestic civil rights law and better suited to address contemporary forms of discrimination’. The United States is obligated to submit periodic reports of its progress to a UN oversight committee (CERD). The third and most recent US update, submitted last year (June 2013), covers its seventh, eight, and ninth periodic reports, and is currently scheduled for CERD review in August of this year. The issue of racial discrimination in voting is addressed in the US update. The justification for changing NC voting law is highly questionable as instances of actual in-person voter fraud are known to be quite rare (ref, ref). And opinion has been published that the Voter ID part of the law is but a smoke screen for legislators to push through a number of other measures that, amongst others, disproportionately affect the state’s African-American population. NC Blacks comprise 22% of our population but represent 29% of those using early voting, 30% of those casting out-of-precinct ballots, 34% of the 318,000 registered voters without state-issued IDs, and 41% of those using same day registration. It becomes difficult to argue how this law does not violate legal obligations our country has assumed under ICERD.
Racial Discrimination: Premature Death, Adverse Health Issues and Impaired Childhood Development
The following represents but a sampling of information readily available to lawmakers that documents the deleterious effects of racial discrimination on longevity, health, and childhood development.
The shortened life expectancy in African-Americans versus their white counterparts is well-documented, well-publicized and even cited in our country’s recent ICERD update. Although recent data analyzed by the CDC shows the life expectancy gap to be closing over some previous estimates (ref, ref), there still remains a gap of several years for both black males and females versus their white counterparts. Although this gap is most often described in terms of being a few years (which trivializes its impact), it is rarely (if ever) expressed as an estimate of the number of individuals losing their lives due to racial discrimination and resultant inequalities in this country. When the reported average shortfalls are applied to the 2000 and 2010 census estimates of almost 35 million and 40 million African-Americans, respectively, it becomes apparent that several million individuals (in just our existing African-American population) will prematurely lose their lives due to adverse socio-economic conditions linked to racial discrimination. This loss of life is staggering in its scope and should be viewed as nothing less than an ongoing human rights atrocity of considerable magnitude. The NC law obstructs the ability of African-Americans to better their circumstances by disproportionately affecting their ability to participate in the voting process.
Poverty’s Role on Longevity, Health and Childhood Development
Disproportionate poverty is clearly involved in the race-based inequalities cited in the US periodic ICERD update. Recognized inequalities include, amongst others, lack of access to essential care (acute and chronic illness – our state additionally refused expansion of Medicaid under the ACA), inadequate housing (exposure), discrimination in employment (income inequality) and gaps in education (competitiveness – recent common core testing results in our state showed only 30% of black students versus 73% of their white classmates scoring at or above proficiency). As was reported by a research team from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, an estimated 875,000 people in the US prematurely lost their lives in 2000 due to a cluster of social factors bound up with poverty and income inequality (social deprivation accounting for some 36 percent of total US deaths that year). The southern Black Belt states (including North Carolina where African-Americans comprise 22% of the population versus 13.1% nationally) are home to a disproportionate share of the African-American poor. This disparity can be visualized by comparing the racial dot map (held to be the most accurate depiction of geographic race distribution in the US) and a map of poverty in this country. Examination of the two reveals an overlay of the areas of greatest African-American population and a higher incidence of poverty running through the Black Belt states. Again the law disproportionately obstructs the ability of the African-American poor to better their circumstances.
Poverty’s reach, however, extends beyond shortened life expectancy and illness – it has been shown to have a devastating impact on childhood development. Research from Madison and Chapel Hill (recently cited by UNC-CH School of Law professor Gene Nichol – Raleigh N&O, January 26, 2014) shows that, by age 4, children living in economic distress demonstrate diminished brain tissue in areas important to processing information. This is but another in a long series of research studies, some dating back at least into the 1990’s, showing the deleterious effects of malnutrition and poverty on intellectual development (the recent Madison/Chapel Hill study allowed visualization of brain changes in youngsters afflicted by poverty). And as cited in professor Nichol’s article, “41% of our [state’s] children of color live in torturous poverty”.
(Note: Regarding children, the United States may soon become the only UN member state not to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (ref, ref), a human rights treaty which sets out the civil, political, social, health and cultural rights of children. It emphasizes the right to survival and development amongst others. Opposition to the Convention has been concentrated in politically conservative groups. The United States was recently in the company of only Somalia and South Sudan in not ratifying the treaty, both of which have either announced plans to ratify the convention (Somalia) or passed a bill to ratify the convention (South Sudan). This is a matter our president has called ’embarrassing’).
Deleterious Effects of Chronic Stress in a Race Conscious Society
But poverty alone does not fully explain the decreased longevity, susceptibility to illness, and impaired development. Geronimus, et. al., Univ of Michigan, have “proposed the ‘weathering’ hypothesis which posits that Blacks experience early health deterioration as a consequence of the cumulative impact of repeated experience with social or economic adversity and political marginalization…persistent high-effort coping with acute and chronic stressors can have a profound effect on health. The stress inherent in living in a race-conscious society that stigmatizes and disadvantages Blacks may cause disproportionate physiological deterioration, such that a Black individual may show the morbidity and mortality typical of a White individual who is significantly older”. Their work has shown that racial inequalities in health were found to exist across a range of systems that were not explained by racial differences in poverty and that ‘weathering effects’ may be greatest among those Blacks most likely to engage in high-effort coping.
UCLA’s Brite Center for Science, Research and Policy has also published on the effects of stress on African-American health. “Researchers studying the neurological reactions to stress by African-Americans have discovered that chronic stress related to discrimination may be a critical factor to understanding why health disparities for that population persist, even when other factors, such as socio-economic status, are taken into account.” UCLA’s work on discrimination contributing to African-American health disparities has been published in a review, and the types of disorders created by chronic exposure to stressors are consistent with those illnesses (diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc) reported to be disparate in the African-American population by the CDC. Research summarized by the National Bureau of Economic Research and recently cited by Nobel Laureate (Economics) Paul Krugman recognizes the negative impact of income inequality on health in African-Americans but suggests that income inequality is less important than other dimensions such as political inequality. And, furthering public awareness of this matter, the stress of discrimination, real or perceived, on shortening Black male’s lives has been published in the lay press.
My career was spent in biomedical research and pharmaceutical product development, my doctoral research having been accepted for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Additionally I have held a senior executive and corporate officer level position overseeing research and development in a publicly-held pharmaceutical corporation in our state, as well as having founded a successful NC corporation involved in pharmaceutical product research and development. So I view legislation from the lens of its impact on public health and longevity. Another area I follow involves human and civil rights, lending support to two organizations involved in those fields.
As was recently communicated to you, I have obtained opinion from a legal scholar in the field of human rights that the issues raised here represent serious human rights issues that violate the provisions of at least three international treaties the US has signed and ratified, ICERD being one of them. But with the well-publicized knowledge we hold today on the deleterious effects of racial discrimination on longevity, health and childhood development, an important consideration becomes whether laws like the NC Voter ID Law should be viewed as being something far more serious than just an obstruction of a civil right – contributing to an ongoing human rights atrocity of considerable magnitude in our country. If our lawmakers knew in advance the racial inequities this law would create, they would be in a difficult position to argue that they were ignorant about such things as: poverty contributing to pre-mature death as well as a host of serious health problems and that our African-American population, especially in the South, suffers a disproportionate level of poverty; children suffering from poverty demonstrating impaired development and other health issues; chronic stress leading to serious health problems and that our African-American population is subjected to chronic stress from socio-economic distress and political marginalization. It therefore becomes important to understand whether lawmakers knew, in advance, the discriminatory nature of the law.
These concerns, and others, are being summarized into a ‘shadow report’ that will be submitted to the UN’s CERD in advance of their review of US progress under the treaty this coming August. Additionally, a human rights organization has offered to relay these concerns to their contacts within the US DOJ. I will be requesting they do the same with the NAACP.