70 Years Ago Black Activists Accused the U.S. of Genocide. They Should Have Been Taken Seriously.

Opinion by ALEX HINTON
12/26/2021 07:00 AM EST

Alex Hinton is a distinguished professor of anthropology and director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University, Newark. He is also an author, most recently of It Can Happen Here: White Power and the Threat of Genocide in the U.S. and of The Anthropological Witness, a forthcoming book about his 2016 experience testifying as an expert witness on the charge of genocide at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Cambodia. Follow him on Twitter @AlexLHinton.

Seventy years ago this month, on Dec. 17, 1951, the United Nations received a bold petition, delivered in two cities at once: Activist William Patterson presented the document to the U.N. assembly in Paris, while his comrade Paul Robeson, the famous actor and singer, did the same at the U.N. offices in New York. W.E.B. Du Bois, a leading Black intellectual, was among the petition’s signatories.

The group was accusing the United States of genocide — specifically, genocide against Black people. The word “genocide” was only seven years old. It had been coined during World War II in a book about Nazi atrocities, and adopted by the United Nations in 1948, though no nation had yet been formally convicted of perpetrating a genocide.

The 240-page petition, “ We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People,” was meant to be sensational. America had been instrumental in prosecuting the Nazis at Nuremberg, and now its own citizens were turning the lens back on the U.S. in the most horrifying, accusatory terms.

Instead, mainstream media largely ignored it. The New York Times and Washington Post mentioned the petition in brief stories buried in the back pages. The Chicago Tribune condemned it for “shameful lies.” Raphael Lemkin, the Polish jurist who had coined the term “genocide,” publicly disagreed with the whole basis of the petition, saying it confused genocide with discrimination.

The drafters of the document hadn’t expected it to go anywhere; they knew the U.S. had too much power at the U.N. for the petition to be taken up. They had written it less as a formal charge than as a presentation of an allegation, loosely written in the model of a legal brief. They hoped, though didn’t expect, that the General Assembly, Commission on Human Rights or another party at the U.N. might take up the issue for deliberation. That never happened.

But today, 70 years later, the document has a new resonance amid the patent injustices of police brutality that continue to occur and racial inequities in health care on display especially throughout the pandemic. “We Charge Genocide” explored these kinds of issues at length, making a compelling case for thinking about structural racism as genocide, which demands not only condemnation but also redress and repair. To consider the arguments in “We Charge Genocide,” drafted by some of the most notable figures in the midcentury civil rights movement, offers important insights into the current moment and how to move forward.