The wrong human rights

By Christine Buckley, CLAS Today

Davita Glasberg, left, and Bandana Purkayastha

Davita Glasberg, left, and Bandana Purkayastha

When it comes to human rights – those basic entitlements like free speech, health care, decent wages and education – it goes without saying that the United States holds the worldwide gold standard. Doesn’t it?

Absolutely not, say two CLAS sociologists.

Their new book, Human Rights in Our Own Backyard, chronicles the modern struggle for human rights in the U.S., from sweatshops to sex trafficking to racism on college campuses.

“The U.S. leadership has for a long time pushed the image of having no human rights problems,” says coauthor Davita Silfen Glasberg, professor of sociology and associate dean of CLAS. “So in this book, we wanted to look at the U.S. and what actually happens with social movements on the ground.”

Glasberg and coauthors Bandana Purkayastha, professor of sociology, and former CLAS graduate student Bill Armaline, now a professor at San Jose State University, developed the book to be used in a course taught by Glasberg and Purkayastha: Human Rights in the United States.

Although there’s plenty of scholarly work about human rights, the conversation is mostly through the lens of political science and legal studies – rarely from a sociological perspective, Glasberg and Purkayastha say. And they want their book to correct for that.

“We share a deep interest in the kinds of movements people have organized to claim substantive rights,” says Purkayastha. “Sometimes there are laws on the books, but what happens on the ground is very different. Do people stop and wait for the state to give them things?”

The book touches on economic, social, cultural, and political and civil rights; it also discusses racial and gender discrimination. Movements in opposition to such recent activities as predatory lending by banks, the lack of food and shelter following Hurricane Katrina, oppression of Native American tribes and the rejection of gay marriage are all recounted in detail.

One such example tells of a movement on UConn’s campus that began in 2001, when undergraduate students occupied the lobby outside of then-president Philip Austin’s office, asking that UConn reform its policies on purchasing athletic apparel bearing the UConn logo. Citing terrible worker conditions and wages too low to live on in third-world factories, the students demanded that the University do business only with merchants that treated their employees fairly.

Now, 10 years later, students at UConn and around the country have made great strides in the sweatshop movement, convincing their schools to change many of their purchasing habits. But the struggle still continues, and that’s part of the point of the book, says Glasberg.

“We don’t give answers in this book,” she says. “It’s not academics talking down to people and telling them what to do. We lay out the issue and talk about what people are actually doing.”

Human Rights In Our Own BackyardStudents in their human rights class, then, can discuss what should happen next in these situations, she explains. The class has been so popular that Glasberg and Purkayastha offer it every semester.

Because of the attention their book has received, Glasberg has also been appointed president of the U.S. chapter of Sociologists Without Borders, an international society that is committed to equal rights and freedoms around the world.

But probably more important, the researchers say, their book has opened doors for countless students in their classes, encouraging them to engage in social movements in ways they hadn’t thought of before.

“Here’s proof that you can get involved in so many ways,” says Purkayastha. “There are so many ways to be a change agent – you can be creative about it. You just have to dream and you have to act.”

Adds Glasberg: “We can say to students, look! Right here, success! Look at the power that you can have!”

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