by Beth A. Latshaw, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
What constitutional rights do you have? What constitutional rights would you like to have? These questions are rarely raised in a serious discussion of human rights or lead to a reevaluation of the United States Constitution. In 2008, the tides are changing. As the forces of globalization have created an increased reliance on other countries and cultures for survival, sociologists are in a unique position to foster national attention to the topic of human rights.
Sociologists are adept at including human rights in a discussion of constitutional rights. The discipline prides itself on understanding the social world as being humanly made, emphasizing that social structures and communities are created from interconnected individuals. We understand the importance of a collective consciousness and how one’s power and privilege can coincide with the oppression of others. Sociologists traditionally seek to explain and attempt to ameliorate race, class, and gender-based inequalities and disparities in U.S. wages, wealth, health, and education. We have the tools and knowledge needed to reconnect collective well-being and the need to combat the lasting effects of racism, sexism, and discrimination with the human rights that have been virtually ignored in the U.S. Constitution (according to international standards).
Comparing the U.S. Constitution
The main difference between the U.S.
Constitution and most other constitutions
is that the United States focuses
centrally on the State—governance, laws,
and citizens’ legal rights—whereas other
constitutions also deal with society. These
constitutions spell out the specific rights of
all citizens, including their social, economic,
cultural, and environmental rights.
In contrast, the U.S. Constitution speaks
in a language of 18th century civil and
political rights, protecting people from the
State, while paying little attention to other
rights. This contrast is especially clear
when comparing the U.S. Constitution
to others revised in the recent past. The
University of Richmond’s Law School
maintains online access to constitutions in
their original languages and English (See
It is true that the differences between most constitutions and the U.S. Constitution are products of the historical context in which they were created. Our constitution was written when democracy itself was in its infancy. The fundamental concern was securing freedom from monarchs and not, as is increasingly the case today, freedom from economic insecurities. However, what sets us apart (or behind) today is the fact that most constitutions in the world have been recently revised—particularly in the last 15 years—in response to globalization and as part of a global democratization movement. Whereas other nations see their constitutions as living documents that must be revised to meet the current needs of their societies, the U.S. Constitution is seen as unchangeable, static, and sacred. While our constitution is the oldest in the world, this may not be something to brag about given that it has changed little since its creation.
The Undergraduate UNC Revision
Increased attention to the consequences of globalization—from environmental dangers to growing economic inequalities— has prompted the United Nations (UN) to call for grassroots movements addressing human rights on a local level. Students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill did just that by planning and hosting a "Constitutional Convention" on December 1, 2007. At this event, undergraduates from three classes related to the Social and Economic Justice Minor formulated the idea and created blogs on economic, social, and political rights to serve as discussion boards/debate forums to propose and modify potential revisions and/or additions to the U.S. Constitution. UNC classes used other country’s constitutions, the International Labour Organization’s conventions, and UN human rights treaties as inspiration for the bills they introduced. Ultimately, the blog discussions led to the creation of committees focused on particular issues like worker’s rights, education, healthcare, etc. The event drew participants from UNC classes and the undergraduate student body as well as local agency representatives, labor organizers, NAACP members, and the mayors of both Chapel Hill and Carrboro, NC.
Reflecting on the success of the event, sociologist Judith Blau said, "Chapel Hill is one of the nation’s leading cities on green energy, and both mayors are pleased their municipalities advance the rights of gays and lesbians. Both mayors described their towns as having ‘human rights orientations.’"¹ While, as Blau notes, these towns are still "plagued by human rights abuses such as: homelessness, inadequate health care, food insecurity, inadequate labor protections, low wages, long work hours, migrants who live in fear of raids, discrimination, gaps between black and white incomes, and growing numbers without health insurance," the seed has been planted to begin a dialogue of international human rights law at a local level.
An Infectious Convention
While UNC was the first to hold a Constitutional Convention, other universities have begun to prepare similar events. Faculty at Stonehill College, Florida Atlantic University, and Boston College are already engaged in discussions with community activists, and ideas have been discussed at Mary Baldwin College. This is applied sociology, or can be seen as a social movement to advance human rights in the United States. In doing so, students, local agencies, and politicians are beginning the dialogue necessary to foster change and an awareness of the importance of human rights today. While rare moments of a collective consciousness and concern for global wellbeing are apparent (as was evident after the 2004 tsunami in Asia), they are often fleeting. Instead, the nation has ironically become increasingly self-satisfied as the world has become more interdependent and multinational. It is the hope that local, grassroots events like Constitutional Conventions can begin the conversation needed to combat or reverse this tendency in the future.
¹Blau, Judith. 2007. "Thinking Internationally - Acting Locally." Common Dreams, December 6. Available at www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/12/06/5637/.