On June 26, 1945, the United States, along with other nations, signed the Charter of the United Nations which mandates that its members work towards the maintaining of international peace, upholding international law, and working to secure and maintain equality and equity by “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” Three years later, the United Nations met and held the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and they signed the resolution on December 19, 1948. It took effect in January of 1951. This convention arose out of the Holocaust and World War II, and it codified, in international law, the definition of genocide. While the United States signed the document in 1948, it did not ratify it at home until November 5, 1988, forty years after the convention.
In 1951, William Patterson and the Civil Rights Congress submitted a petition to the United Nations charging the United States with genocide of African Americans and Blacks in the nation. We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People lays out detailed evidence pointing out how the United States has systematically violated the articles of the Genocide Convention, notably in the “killing of members of the group,” “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,” the deliberate infliction of policies and acts that “bring about physical destruction in whole or in part,” and more, including the prevention of births and removal of children from families. We Charge Genocide focuses, specifically, on six years of evidence, between 1945-1951, and in those six years, they detail countless acts of violence, abuse, and harassments against African Americans and Blacks.
As I read the opening sections of We Charge Genocide, the argument didn’t strike me, mostly because what they charge and lay out comes from decades and generations of history which supports the claim. They present this history, in a truncated manner, by tracing enslavement, share cropping, the coup in Wilmington in 1898, Jim Crow, and more. No, what stood out to me was why countless individuals refused to accept the Genocide Convention or the United Nations itself. These discussions made me return to Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy and her discussions of white women and organizations rejecting the United Nations and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) because they felt that these entities presented a challenge to white supremacy and their position. McRae doesn’t talk much about the Genocide Convention, but looking at We Charge Genocide‘s exploration of reaction to the convention along with McRae’s examination of white women brought a lot of things together for me.
One of the arguments that the authors of We Charge Genocide put forth is that the Genocide Charter supersedes the laws of the United States because it is an international agreement. They point out that by signing the agreement, the charter, the United States entered into a binding agreement with other nations to uphold the ideals of the United Nations, the Genocide Convention among them. This argument and idea is what kept the United States from ratifying the convention for forty years. The authors states, “For the Charter, having been signed by the United States and ratified by its Senate, becomes the supreme law of the land.” The Los Angeles Superior Court, in the decision for Fujii v. California, “held that the law of the Charter of the United nations superseded the law of California when the latter was in conflict with the former.” This decision caused and uproar and backlash.
Even the American Bar Association (ABA), as the authors of We Charge Genocide argue, believed that the Genocide Convention applied to the United States and its treatment of African Americans and Blacks. However, they state that the for this reason the ABA “opposed its ratification” and implementation. The fear from the ABA and others stemmed from who would conduct the trial of those accused of genocide. In the record of the ABA’s Special Committee on Peace and Law in 1949, they wrote, “Endless confusion in the dual system of the United States would be inevitable with the same crime being murder in state law and genocide in federal and international fields. Race riots and lynching being both local crimes and genocide depending on the intent and extent of participation.” Here, they essentially make a “states’ rights” argument, one that privileges white supremacy and the continued oppression of individuals and the killing and mental abuse of individuals based on race.
Later, on September 7, 1949, the ABA passed a resolution opposing the ratification and acceptance of the Genocide Convention. They wrote, “American citizens might eventually come to be triable by an international tribunal where they would not be surrounded by the constitutional safeguards and legal rights accorded persons charged with domestic crime.” We Charge Genocide pushes back and notes that through these statements the ABA tacitly admits that the United Nations has jurisdiction. They continue by quoting senators and others who all explicitly push back on teh convention because it challenges their white supremacy. Harry S. Berger, on the National Economic Council, what the authors call “a fascist organization,” said, “If I may, I should like to suggest that the ultimate effect of it will be to punish in every country the crime of lynching. . . . The punishment should be left to the States where they have trial by juries of their peers and punishment inflicted by the courts of justice set up under our American standards.” Berger explicitly positions his refusal of the convention as an attack on his position and white supremacy because the juries, as the evidence shows, failed, in the majority, to convict and punish the perpetrators of lynching and murder.
McRae points out that organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution saw “the United Nations as a threat to private property, Christianity, and minority rights (in this case, the DAR noted that whites were a minority of the world’s population).” As well, white women such as Frances Ogden rejected the Genocide Convention because it stated that genocide is a “crime which does mental or bodily harm to a member of a racial minority.” Ogden argued that the charter and the convention would be detrimental to the “American” way of life because “a Negro, a Chinese, or any member of any racial minority, could insult you [a white person], or your daughter. Your husband might shoot him, knock him down, or cuss him out. If so, he could be tried in an international court. It would also make it a crime to prevent intermarriage and intermarriage would destroy the white race which has brought Christianity to the world.”
Ogden, along with Berger and others, is explicit in why she views the United Nations and the charter as a threat. The resistance stems from the desire to uphold white supremacy and the fear of losing one’s position to others. It’s a fear that causes individuals to not look at themselves and to reflect on their ideas. It’s a fear that causes them to shut themselves off from others and refuse to expand their horizons. It’s a fear based in deep rooted psychological threads that rip and tear at individuals from the inside.
This post doesn’t touch on all of the pushback to the United Nations and how that pushback served to uphold white supremacy. That is a much longer discussion which I do not feel knowledgeable about to explore right now. However, what I did point out, hopefully, is the ways that the resistance to, what should be clear cut following the Holocaust, the Genocide Convention rests not on the prevention of repeating the Holocaust but on the failure to self-reflect and on the desire to maintain white supremacy. It’s a psychological split that positions what happened in Europe as an atrocity but what occurs in the United States as something that exists as part of everyday life and reflects history and culture. This failure to see the connections perpetuates the system and perpetuate the violence and oppression. This is what We Charge Genocide clearly points out.