Press release

United States: Freedom House Expresses Solidarity with Communities of Color

An open letter on racial justice from the president of Freedom House

In response to recent events in the United States, Freedom House released the following open letter from the organization’s president:

Dear colleagues, trustees, and friends of Freedom House,

I want to share some personal reflections at a time of crisis in the United States. Like many of you, I was outraged and sickened by the video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, impairing his breathing and ultimately killing him. Racial injustice, one of the greatest weaknesses in our democracy, was once again laid bare. I would like to express Freedom House’s solidarity with all communities that suffer as a result of inequality in our system, especially communities of color. This kind of solidarity has been Freedom House’s stance throughout our history, and we offer it again today.

America arguably has one of the most dynamic political systems in the world, with a strong tradition of judicial independence, powerful legal protections for the news media, and freedom to associate and peacefully protest. In the current climate, some of those proud traditions are being threatened. As the events of the past week have underscored, African Americans are more likely to be targets of police violence and harsh sentencing, including prolonged incarceration. While the free press is enshrined in our constitution, journalists covering the protests have been harassed, assaulted, and arrested even as they identify themselves as reporters—a profound breach of long-standing protections for newsgatherers. The right to assembly is being denied, as militarized police forces teargas peaceful protesters in many cities.

It has been over half a century since the landmark laws won by the civil rights movement—which Freedom House supported—were passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson. Many changes for the better have taken place. But as a nation, we still have far to go. As many citizens and leaders of all backgrounds have noted during the current crisis, when it comes to the crucial matters of daily life, like getting a job, buying a home, finding a good neighborhood school for one’s children, or simply walking the streets without fear of police profiling, African Americans still often experience what amounts to second-class citizenship.

Freedom House research bears this out. As part of our Freedom in the World survey, we annually assess the quality of democracy in every country in the world, including the United States. In recent years, democracy has suffered a decline globally, due especially to the pernicious ways in which many governments and societies have discriminated against certain racial, ethnic, and religious groups. Rather than trying to represent their entire countries, political leaders around the world are pursuing narrow visions of national interest that exclude or, worse, persecute vulnerable populations. Underlying America’s own democracy shortfall is the stubborn persistence of racial injustice.

While many protests triggered by George Floyd’s death have proceeded or commenced peacefully, there have also been nightly televised images that suggest a nation careening out of control. Social media help Americans organize, but they also facilitate the deliberate encouragement of violence and the spread of disinformation about conditions on the ground. Instead of attempting to calm the unrest, the president has offered polarizing tweets that further strain our country’s social and political fabric, and has put forth proposals intended to chill speech instead of protect it.

Coupled with the human and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of this makes for a profoundly unsettling time that calls for moral and political leadership to bring our country together.

We urgently need a new bipartisan effort to address the ongoing deficit in racial justice. For instance, African Americans are imprisoned at a vastly disproportionate rate. There has been an impressive bipartisan movement to reform the criminal justice system with the goal of bringing down incarceration rates, and this should press forward. The events of the past week should also act as an impetus for more active steps to implement reforms in policing tactics. Numerous studies have identified police methods that are overly aggressive and too reliant on tools and ideas borrowed from the military. Governors, mayors, and chiefs of police should take immediate action to roll back the “warrior” approach to law enforcement and move swiftly to enact far-reaching changes, including greater training on deescalation techniques.

Presidential leadership at this moment is crucial. We will not move toward racial justice if our public officials are focused on blame placing, partisan attacks, and stoking polarization. Instead, leaders should be calling on Americans to remember and act on our highest ideals of equality, unity, and freedom.

I’d like to end on a note of hope. Racial injustice has plagued this country since its founding. But we now live in a world where technology can be used to lay it bare in real time. And civil society—active citizens who are organizing themselves to create a more perfect union—is out in full force. Ordinary people willing to speak, protest, and organize for lasting change are the bedrock of a robust democracy. Viewed through that lens, our democracy is very strong indeed.

Stay well and stay free,

Mike Abramowitz