U.S. Race Record Demands Action

03/21/2008 06:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, annually observed since 1966 to commemorate the Sharpeville massacre of young South African students peacefully protesting apartheid laws. It's a fitting occasion to examine recent international attention to racism in the U.S.

On Tuesday, the same day as Senator Obama's speech on race in America in which he proclaimed that "race is an issue that...this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said before a high-level panel convened in Geneva, "48 years after the Sharpeville shootings, no country can claim to be free of racism's destructive influence." And earlier this month, in an event that received far less coverage in U.S. media than Obama's speech, a U.N. human rights body reviewed the United States' record on racial justice, and found that we are in breach of our human rights obligations to end racial discrimination. After these recent pronouncements from Geneva, it's clear that we, as a nation, can no longer deny the problems of racial discrimination, from racial profiling to unequal access to educational opportunities, that persist here.

On March 7, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a searing indictment of racism in this country. The Committee is charged with monitoring the U.S.'s compliance with a binding international treaty to end racial discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, ratified by the U.S. in 1994. In its "concluding observations," the U.N. body enumerated a long list of areas in which the U.S. is violating its treaty obligations at the federal, state, and local level, and is perpetuating racial discrimination through laws, practices, and failures to remedy systemic racism. In formulating its findings, the Committee reviewed submissions by the U.S. government and non-governmental organizations like the ACLU and held a hearing to question U.S. government officials about issues raised in the NGOs' reports to the Committee.

The Committee declared that racial profiling is widespread in the U.S., and expressed concern about the increase in racial profiling against Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians since 9/11. The Committee also noted that de facto racial segregation persists in American public schools while racial disparities in suspension, expulsion and arrest rates in schools funnel students of color into prison. The U.N. body strongly criticized the "persistent racial disparities in the criminal justice system," pointing to the disproportionate number of African-Americans and Latinos in the prison population, the disproportionate sentencing of youth of color to life imprisonment without parole, the persistent systemic inadequacies of criminal indigent defense programs, and the persistent and significant racial disparities in the imposition of the death penalty.

The Committee also declared that the U.S. government response to Hurricane Katrina has had a disparate impact on low-income African-Americans. In illustrating the U.S.'s breach of the international treaty, the U.N. body also pointed to the pervasiveness of police brutality, violence against Native American women and domestic workers, the disparate impact of felon disenfranchisement laws, and the erosion of legal protection and redress for women workers and undocumented workers.

On issue after issue, the U.N. body slammed the U.S. government, noting numerous examples of racial discrimination and demonstrating that the U.S. government simply is not doing enough to address widespread racial discrimination. The Committee's findings unambiguously showed that to retain (or regain) any legitimacy as a proponent of human rights, the U.S. must address racial discrimination with real reforms.

Of course, all this begs the question, what does the U.N.'s view from the Alps mean for Washington, or for that matter, displaced residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, or the millions of Americans barred from the polls because of a felony conviction? The U.N. body issued clear and detailed recommendations to the U.S. government, creating a blueprint for the government to follow in order to stem the widespread human rights violations the Committee documented.

While these recommendations are not legally binding, they serve as goals for which concerned Americans can push our government, and are a set of benchmarks for us to assess our government's record on human rights.

For example, Congress can implement the Committee's recommendations to pass two pending pieces of legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 2008, which would restore basic civil rights protections that have been weakened over the years by the courts, and the End Racial Profiling Act, which would combat racial bias in police enforcement.

Moreover, these recommendations carry a heavy moral weight, and if the U.S. is to assert leadership on human rights issues, it must take the findings of these U.N. bodies seriously. Now that these international bodies have called on the U.S. to act, the world will be watching any new administration to determine whether the government is serious about combating violations of the human rights of racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants.


This post was co-written with Jamil Dawkar.
Jamil Dakwar is the Advocacy Director and head of the Human Rights Program. He is one of a team of ACLU lawyers litigating Ali v. Rumsfeld, a suit challenging U.S. interrogation and detention practices in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the past year, Dakwar has led ACLU human rights advocacy before the U.N. Committee against Torture and the U.N. Human Rights Committee, which reviewed U.S. government compliance with international human rights treaties. Prior to joining the ACLU in November 2004, Dakwar worked at Human Rights Watch, where he conducted research and published reports on issues of torture and detention in Egypt, Morocco and Israel/Occupied Palestinian Territories. Before coming to the United States, Dakwar co-founded and worked as a senior attorney at Adalah, a leading human rights group in Israel focusing on the rights of Arab Palestinian citizens. At Adalah, Dakwar filed and argued dozens of human rights cases before the Israeli Supreme Court, and advocated before international forums including the United Nations treaty bodies. Dakwar has received several human rights and public interest fellowships, including the Furman International Human Rights Fellowship, the NYU Law School Public Service Law Fellowship and the Washington College of Law - NIF Law Fellowship. Dakwar received his law degree in 1996 from Tel-Aviv University and LL.M. from New York University Law School in 2003.