11/04/2014 04:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Slavery, Hong Kong and Inalienable Rights: We've Got It Wrong

alexskopje via Getty Images

"American slaves were liberated in 1861 but did not get voting rights until 107 years later. So why can't Hong Kong wait for a while?"

Recently Laura Cha, a Hong Kong politician, made this rather unnerving statement in reference to pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong who have been occupying public spaces for over a month now. The protesters poured out in droves to occupy the streets of some of Hong Kong's most populated areas to protest having their election ballots limited to China-vetted candidates only.

Laura Cha's statement is disturbing for three particular reasons:

  1. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863.
  2. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed in, well, 1965, 102 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
  3. Lastly -- and this is perhaps the most disconcerting reason -- the notion of inalienable rights seems to escape her.

Not only does Cha have a loose understanding of American history in this botched allegory attempt that is riddled with errors, but she does not appear to be wise enough to recognize that justifying oppression with an example of a different kind of oppression is repugnant. Reuters reported that a petition condemning Cha's comments has been submitted to HSBC Bank, on whose board she sits.

The petition, which has garnered over 8,500 signatures as of this writing, reads:

We, the Hong Kong public, will not stand these remarks likening our rights to slavery, nor will we stand the kind of voter disenfranchisement her and her [associates] attempt to [perpetrate] on the Hong Kong public.

Beyond Cha's attempt to pacify the call for necessary and proper democratic freedom in Hong Kong, she also asserts, unbeknownst to herself, an underlying notion that rights are essentially privileges bestowed upon individuals when the time best presents itself. Contrary to that idea, use of the word "right" is deliberate in society to affirm the understanding that certain entitlements are morally just and necessary as opposed to insignificant opportunities being offered.

It appears that Cha is not alone in this thinking. At the 10:35 mark in the video below, watch a St. Louis Cardinals fan accost Ferguson protestors by shouting, "We're the ones who gave all y'all the freedoms that you have!"

While such a statement is extremely troublesome, the Cardinals fan is essentially calling upon the language the way many mischaracterize rights regularly. So often people say, "Slaves were given civil rights in 1964," or, "Blacks were granted the right to vote with the Fifteenth Amendment." By stating that these rights were simply given by the government, both statements effectively remove the inalienable human right that African Americans were due despite the hundreds of years they were denied them. The use of such language acts as an erasure of the violent struggle that was necessary to attain something blacks had cruelly been robbed of in the time preceding policy-change implementation.

Saying that blacks were given or granted rights erases the hundreds of bodies lynched, attacked, and beaten while fighting for entitlements for which we were already deserving. History shows that the oppressed are not given much of anything without having to fight for it. Nothing about the process of achieving political and civil freedom for blacks was given. It had to be taken.

The next time someone states that inalienable rights were "given" to any oppressed group, boldly reply, "No, they seized the rights they had been denied all along."

Finally, to answer Laura Cha's question: No, the citizens of Hong Kong cannot wait any longer for democratic freedom and proper government representation, as the Chinese government has shown it would apparently steamroll the people of Hong Kong unless they risk their lives to prohibit it.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post erroneously referred to the St. Louis Cardinals fan as a St. Louis Rams fan. As the video clearly shows, she is wearing a Cardinals jacket. The post has been updated accordingly. We regret the error.