The Carr Center Releases its Reimagining Rights and Responsibilities in the United States Report

October 8, 2020
Naturalization Ceremony

Researchers at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy release a set of 80 recommendations toward a more equal liberty.

Americans today know they face threats to their rights, their democracy, their health and their economy. These threats are interrelated and demand a transformative response. Transformations have occurred at other pivotal moments in our nation’s history—at its founding during the American Revolution, its Reconstruction after the Civil War, its recovery from the Great Depression, its rise after World War II, and its reimagining during the Civil Rights Movement. Can today become a similar moment of transformation, turning threats into opportunities through the power of civic activism, voting, and government response? Can we reimagine the promise of rights that bind us together as a nation of diverse histories, identities, and lived experiences? 

With the release of their nonpartisan, evidence-based report, Reimagining Rights and Responsibilities in the United States, researchers at Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights provide a guide for the nation wrestling with its values. This blueprint for protecting and expanding citizens’ rights proposes policy changes to strengthen democratic processes; safeguard equal protection, equal opportunity, and due process of law; and better protect freedoms of speech, media, religion and privacy.
The Reimagining Rights and Responsibilities Project is directed by John Shattuck, Carr Center Senior Fellow and former US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The report and the project are overseen by a faculty committee chaired by Carr Center Faculty Director Mathias Risse.
“Events this year—the COVID pandemic, massive nationwide protests for racial justice, attacks on voting rights—have underscored the urgency of a national renewal of rights,” says Mathias Risse. “Since the fall of 2019, the Carr Center’s Renewing Rights and Responsibilities Program has worked to strengthen the principles of equality and liberty that are enshrined in our country’s founding documents.”
In July of 2020, the Reimagining Rights Project released a nationwide poll of a broadly representative sample of 2,093 adults on attitudes toward rights in the U.S. An overwhelming, bipartisan majority agreed that “without our freedoms America is nothing,” and 71 percent felt that despite deep polarization, “Americans have more in common than many people think.”
The project also convened town hall meetings with citizens in Phoenix, Detroit, and Atlanta. Insights from the poll and the meetings enabled researchers to build a comprehensive portrait of the attitudes of Americans on the current condition of rights and responsibilities in the United States.
The Condition of Rights Today
The Carr Center’s year-long study of the current condition of rights in the United States found that rights are facing their gravest threats in more than half a century, with 75% of Americans across the political and demographic spectrum believing that rights are “very important” but “not very secure.”
These threats—to voting, equal protection, free speech, due process, privacy, and much more—endanger American democracy. "Rights in the U.S. are values that hold together a nation of great diversity," said John Shattuck. "The U.S. is a nation wrestling with its values at a time when rights are facing the gravest threats in half a century.  Our report is a guide for reimagining rights and the responsibility of leaders and citizens to protect them."
Of the fifteen topics examined by the Reimagining Rights team, researchers determined the right to vote and the democratic process, above all, are under systematic attack. After more than two centuries of struggle to secure the voting rights of African Americans, women and other previously disenfranchised groups, the American electoral system today is again confronted by political and legal maneuvers to suppress and deny this core democratic right. One key finding of the Reimagining Rights Report shows in the years since the 2010 state and congressional elections, legislatures in 25 states, mostly dominated by Republican legislative majorities, have imposed restrictive voting regulations and requirements.
In addition to new voting restrictions, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it dangerous to go to the polls, where challenges in social-distancing increase the risk of exposure. The alternative to in-person voting, of course, is voting by mail,  which President Trump has consistently attacked with false accusations of voter fraud, despite researchers uncovering no evidence of widespread fraud in voting by mail or in person in the United States in recent decades.
The COVID pandemic has put exceptional strain not only on the right to vote but many more rights, laying bare the effects of structural racism on the health of minorities, creating a devastating downturn in the economy, straining the health care system and wreaking havoc on the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans. COVID-19 has reinforced the racial divide on issues of employment, housing and education. 
The Reimagining Rights team found racial discrimination infects every aspect of American life. No area is more emblematic of the ongoing crisis of racism than the criminal justice system: African American and Native American men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men; disproportionate sentences are imposed on racial minorities; African Americans and Latinos comprise 56% of US prisoners but only 36% of the population.
Other key findings of the report include:
  • The rights of equal access to health care, education and clean air and water are endorsed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities of Americans and supported by the principles of equal protection.
  • Domestic violence has increased during the COVID pandemic, exacerbated by congressional failure to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.
  • The socioeconomic effects of deeply rooted racial discrimination have placed Black Americans and other people of color at far greater risk from the COVID pandemic than non-minorities.
  • LGBTQ people in more than half the states are not protected from many forms of discrimination, despite a recent Supreme Court ruling that federal civil rights laws bar employment discrimination on the basis of sexual identity.
  • There is documented evidence of a connection between rising hate crimes and increasing hate speech, especially in statements by political leaders.
Reimagining Rights and Responsibilities
The Reimagining Rights team researched fifteen topics in five broad categories that are fundamental to protecting and expanding citizens’ rights: democratic process, equal protection, freedoms of speech and religion, due process of law, and rights of privacy. Among the 80 recommendations to federal, state and local policymakers:
  • To strengthen the democratic process: eliminate restrictions on voting participation; restore the Voting Rights Act to guard against voting laws with a racially discriminatory impact; prevent partisan gerrymandering; require and fund civic education; and amend the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College and permit the regulation of campaign finance.
  • To safeguard the right of equal protection: reform policing, law enforcement and the criminal justice system; strengthen civil rights protections against discrimination, including hate crime laws; create measures to guarantee equal access to education, employment, housing, environmental protection and health care; and enact laws guaranteeing equality of rights in which all rights are equally protected and no single right is privileged over other rights.
  • To promote due process and the rule of law: secure due process and humanitarian protections in immigration proceedings; reduce incarceration and juvenile detention; reform sentencing laws; and enact laws that balance gun rights with public safety.
  • To protect freedom of speech and media: create a digital public infrastructure; require social media transparency and accountability; and promote media literacy.
  • To safeguard freedom of religion: protect the free exercise of religion equally for all religions and reestablish a balance of claims of religious freedom with other constitutional rights.
  • To reimagine privacy rights: develop national privacy policies and standards and create a federal privacy and data commission with broad authority to enforce privacy standards in both government and the private sector.
About the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy serves as the hub of the Harvard Kennedy School’s research, teaching, and training in the human rights domain. The center embraces a dual mission: to educate students and the next generation of leaders from around the world in human rights policy and practice; and to convene and provide policy-relevant knowledge to international organizations, governments, policymakers, and businesses.