“An American by choice” was the phrase my father, the late Congressman Tom Lantos, often used to describe himself. A Hungarian-born Jew, he became the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in the U.S. Congress and an ardent champion for human rights and justice. He believed America possessed powerful moral stature, which we should use to fight for a more just, democratic and inclusive world.
Though my father loved and believed deeply in America, he was neither blind nor indifferent to its flaws and failures — above all, its original sin of slavery and the centuries of persecution, discrimination and institutionalized racism that have followed. He spoke of American history as a long, painful journey to close “the hypocrisy gap.” By this, he meant the enormous and shameful chasm between the ennobling principles of equality and dignity enunciated in our founding documents and the bitterly disappointing reality of racism and other failures in America’s culture and systems.
This week, the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, which was created to carry on his legacy, will award its highest human rights honor to Bryan Stevenson, public interest lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. This marks the first time that the Lantos Human Rights Prize will be awarded to a human rights figure whose advocacy has focused on the struggle for human rights and justice here in America.
The decision to award Stevenson the 2020 prize took place against the backdrop of the terrible, but revelatory, events that swept across America last year — the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent wave of nationwide protests for equal justice. These events forced every American to reckon with the “hypocrisy gap” and they called for the Lantos Prize to go to an individual whose work centers on human rights challenges here at home. Stevenson has dedicated his life to pursuing true justice in America.
The landscape looks different today than it did last year, when there was optimism and hope for bipartisan criminal justice reform at the federal level. Many believed that 2020 offered a unique opportunity to make meaningful changes that would move us toward closing the hypocrisy gap and achieving real justice and equality for all. With the recent collapse of negotiations on criminal justice reform and no indication of when or whether this effort might revive, the promise of change now seems distant. But we cannot lose hope; we must press on.
Our work generally focuses on human rights abuses happening elsewhere in the world, and often that includes advocating for the United States to play a greater role in pressing other countries to grant their citizens fundamental rights. But I believe — and I am certain my father would agree — that America’s failure to honestly confront our own human rights shortcomings undermines our ability to speak with moral authority about egregious and systemic abuses in closed and autocratic societies around the world. As Bryan Stevenson’s life and work illustrate, the fight for human rights must begin at home. The failure to live up to our ideals not only causes deep harm to our fellow Americans — particularly Black Americans and other communities of color — but also damages our credibility as a human rights leader fighting for oppressed peoples worldwide.
My father used to say — and I firmly believe — that human rights are nonpartisan. We see this truth in practice when Democrats and Republicans come together to condemn the genocide being committed against the Uyghurs of Xinjiang and the Rohingya of Myanmar, or when they stand in solidarity against the repression of authoritarian regimes around the world. But we must recognize that our own struggle to close the hypocrisy gap and to “form a more perfect union” is a human rights struggle that should bring us together in an equally nonpartisan manner. Too often, we see this issue becoming deeply politicized and creating more discord in an already divided country.
My father, a deeply patriotic immigrant who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, believed in the possibility of an America where the phrase “all men [and women] are created equal” would be more than just a line that we quote — it would be a principle that we lived, regardless of race, religion or party affiliation. We must make this America a reality if we hope to reclaim the hard-earned right to lead the world in the fight for human rights and justice for all.
Katrina Lantos Swett, Ph.D., J.D., is president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice. She is a human rights professor at Tufts University and the former chair of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom. Follow her on Twitter @LantosSwettK.