February 21 marks the anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, just over a half century ago. Malcolm X articulated a message of racial justice that made him far ahead of his time. He believed the black struggle for civil rights must be expanded to the level of human rights, a message which the Black Lives Matter movement should incorporate into the current public discussion on race in order to move it forward.
As the nation grapples with the seemingly intractable nature of institutional racism and inequities in the justice system, the slain leader resonates with a Black Lives Matter movement born decades after his death. Yet, this nascent movement fights the same hopelessly persistent problem of American racism, one born of the badge of slavery.
Malcolm had much to say regarding the precarious, if not ephemeral or even illusory nature of civil rights for African-Americans, who were originally noncitizens, regarded as property and not human, and therefore excluded from the protections of the Constitution. "They don't need additional legislation to make anyone who comes to this country a citizen, but when it comes to the rights of the black people who are the descendants of slaves, then new legislation is necessary," he said.
Making a clear distinction between civil rights and human rights, Malcolm X framed the former as a domestic affairs issue. "Whenever you are in a civil-rights struggle, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. No one from the outside world can speak out in your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil-rights struggle," he argued. "Civil rights means you're asking Uncle Sam to treat you right. Human rights are something you were born with."
And pleading to America for equal, just and fair treatment has been an elusive proposition for African-Americans. "There is something about civil rights that makes it almost impossible for us to get," Malcolm X argued. After all, in a nation that often stands in blissful denial over the very existence of racial inequities, the benefits conferred by white skin privilege have been so ingrained as to become normalized. Any suggestion that the playing field should be leveled, that inclusivity should reign and the wrongs should be eradicated, is met with white backlash, false claims of "reverse racism" and a form of self-righteous grievance also known as "white tears."
Further, the way in which the victims of racism are treated in the U.S. reflects a refusal to come to terms with it. While institutional racism is hardwired into the fiber of America, the victims of racial injustice are left to prove that someone intended to discriminate against them. A stumbling block to justice, the civil rights mindset assumes that the ability to read the mind or heart of an accused perpetrator of racism is of greater consequence than the existence of systemic, multigenerational barriers to equality--of systems of oppression that steal lives, livelihoods and spirits in broad daylight and on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, the human rights approach to racism focuses on the end result, the damage that has been done. "When we begin to get in this area, we need new friends, we need new allies," Malcolm noted, as the civil rights struggle is elevated to one of human rights. When African-Americans begin to view their plight with a human rights lens, they are able to link their predicament with that of people of African descent in Latin America, Europe and throughout the diaspora. And in the process, they establish connections with groups such as the Roma in Europe, the Dalits in India, and the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
"They keep you wrapped up in civil rights. And you spend so much time barking up the civil-rights tree, you don't even know there's a human-rights tree on the same floor," Malcolm said. The leader's words provide guidance on how to address today's reality of racism.