When the president name-checked the watershed moments of the women’s rights, civil rights and LGBT equality movements, he offered a powerful moment of official recognition.

Melissa Harris-Perry, The Nation.

Of course, women's rights and LGBT rights are civil rights, but Melissa Harris-Perry here uses the term civil rights to refer to racial equality only. That, in fact, seems to be the standard usage of the term in the USA, but not elsewhere. Why is that?

3 Answers 3


While Civil Rights in the USA means far more than racial equality only, it is common to use the term synonomously with racial equality because that was the driving force behind the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Thus, because of the name of the law, over time that has become another term for racial equality. Even though that act prevented discrimination based on people's religion and gender also, it is still most highly associated with racial rights.

Even with that sort of explained, it is quite common in US politics for groups to hijack words/phrases for their political benefit even if the hijacker has little corresponding relationship to the original meaning of the word. e.g. Progressives, has little to do with progress, but it sounds better than liberal :) So looking for a logical reason why phrases mean what they do can just be chalked up to colloquialisms.

  • 6
    Progressivsness has real meaning. According to the standard definition the right favors "traditional values" while the left favors "social progress". If you want to converse the "traditioanl values" you are "conversative" if you want that society progresses from them you are "progressive".
    – Christian
    Feb 16, 2013 at 15:11
  • 1
    Not that I want to argue about a statement that was meant to be a joke. However, Progressive means "making progress towards better conditions". There's a huge percentage of the people who would contend that the self anointed "Progressives" do exactly the opposite of that and should be calling themselves "Regressives" instead. Those same people have far more reason to believe they are right since the Progressive version of Utopia has been tried and failed spectactularly every single time it has been tried throughout history.
    – Dunk
    Feb 18, 2013 at 14:35
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    Part of being progressive is to believe that the progress is towards better conditions. The people who are conversative don't believe that the same progress is towards better conditions. Take some third-world country. The progressive says: "Hey, I don't like my government. We'll do a revolution and then hopefully everything is better." The conservative says: "If we destroy the state we get chaos and anarchy that's worse than the bad government that we have in place."
    – Christian
    Feb 18, 2013 at 17:30
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    @Christian - We'll just leave it as you don't have a clue on how conservatives think or believe and are very naive in your view of progressives and leave it at that. Your example makes no sense, especially since the progressives would be the least likely to start a revolution.
    – Dunk
    Feb 19, 2013 at 15:34
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    First paragraph is fine, but -1 for the second. Technically, progressiveness and liberalism are not at all the same thing and progressivism does actually mean progress. In addition, no terms were necessarily hijacked here. That's just the term that has been in widespread use in the US. Civil liberties tends to be the broader term that we use in the US.
    – user1530
    Apr 26, 2017 at 2:15

Historically, the greatest divide in American society has been the racial divide. Nobody understood this better than a Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville, who published "Democracy in America." The racial issue was the one that was most likely to lead to deep and permanent inequality.

Even if she were discriminated against, a woman, if she were white, would have some access to "privilege" by being the wife, or at least the daughter of a white man. Not so an African American, in a society that did not countenance interracial marriage until very recently.

Also, the Americans who were strongest in the support of racial equality were the usually the ones that were most likely to support civil rights generally.


There needs to be a distinction between "civil rights" (lower case) and "Civil Rights". The former is simply a noun phrase that refers to the natural rights that all citizens should have respected by their government, while the latter is the name of the Civil Rights era, along with the associated laws and arguments surrounding the specific issue of racism in America during the 1950's and beyond. Given America's history of slavery and Jim Crow in the Old South, it's natural for Americans to conflate the terms when they are speaking, since racism is such a prominent feature of modern history and of current politics.

When it comes to civil rights for other groups (women, the LGBT community, etc.), there are those that wish to draw a distinction between the hardships they suffer, and those suffered by blacks throughout most of American history (similar to Holocaust references -- there is little that can compare to the Holocaust). There are others who argue that racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. are all different forms of discrimination that need to be eradicated and want them all recognized under the same umbrella (the author of your linked article takes this position).

But no matter which side of this argument you're on, the fact that there are sides to be taken is proof that the concept has two definitions in America.

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