Posted by Eddie Bejarano on February 20, 2015 in Blog


"The new Senate Republican Majority’s decision to expunge civil rights and human rights from this subcommittee’s name is a discouraging sign given the growing diversity of our nation and the complex civil and human rights challenges we face,” reads a statement released by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The sharp words were a response to Senator John Cornyn’s (R-TX) decision to rename a Senate Judiciary subcommittee from the subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights to only the subcommittee on the Constitution. While it may seem that a simple name change is not a major issue, there is the possibility that the change in name reflects a significant narrowing of the subcommittee’s agenda.

Having received criticism about his decision to alter the subcommittee’s name, Sen. Cornyn’s spokeswoman, stated, “We changed the name because the Constitution covers our most basic rights including civil and human rights.” However, Ben Marter, Senator Richard Durbin’s spokesman, admitted that the name change is more significant than a simplification but in fact, “the name of a subcommittee speaks to its priorities.” Sen. Cornyn’s decision to rename the subcommittee can be read as a damaging symbolic gesture at a moment in U.S. history where American civil rights are being seriously challenged. Moreover, as David Stacy of the Human Rights Campaign contends, “civil and human rights are constitution rights but they’re also rights that extend beyond the Constitution.”  

There is a great danger in framing civil and human rights as strictly flowing from the United States Constitution, instead of respecting those rights and freedoms as higher order obligations unto themselves. Take for instance the many examples over the past few years that show how civil rights are being threatened in ways that the Constitution is perhaps ambiguous on. First, an increasing number of states have introduced voting laws that clearly discriminate against particular ethnic constituencies but are done so legally by individual states. Also consider the recent death of unarmed African Americans Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin which have collectively reignited debates regarding race relations, the criminal justice system, and police brutality. Additionally, there has been a significant increase in the number of hates crimes being committed against the Arab American and American Muslim community including the recent heinous murder of three Arab American Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There is dire need for our elected officials to tackle civil rights issues in the U.S. that require visionary leadership, not solely on the protections prescribed in the U.S. Constitution. We sincerely hope that the decision to change the subcommittee’s name does not signify the diminishing importance of civil and human rights within the halls of Congress.

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