Saturday, May 31, 2008

UN: A Post-Racial America? Not Yet.

So. The United States of America is not a “post-racial” (or “post-gender” for that matter) society after all. The racial and gender vitriol and resentment apparent in the current U.S. presidential campaign threatens to overwhelm the early celebratory mood of women (including women of color), people of color, and people hoping for an end to racism and sexism in public office. Let’s hope some optimism remains (about ending “racism” as opposed to “getting past race” as a useful social, political, or cultural construct).

We’ll need optimism, whether or not the post-identity dreams of some pan out. Whatever happens in the U.S. presidential election, either the “new” or “old” politics will have to deal with issues that threaten human survival on a global scale: violent conflicts (including in our own poorest neighborhoods) and the related trade in small arms, disease pandemics, global climate change and “natural” disasters, fair terms of trade and the rights of workers, massive refugee and migrant flows, and extreme poverty. Race and racism play a part in the way such problems play out—on who they impact first or most severely, and the urgency or lack of urgency with which they are resolved.

For those of us who grew up both Black and female in the 60s or 70s, the fact that our country’s final candidates for the nation’s highest office included a talented African-American male Senator and a talented white female Senator should still be inspirational and symbolize progress. It means that at least some entrenched ideas and behaviors are capable of change after years of struggle by many unsung s/heroes. (Photo: Ida B. Wells-Barnett, anti-lynching and African-American women's suffrage campaigner.)

Symbolism is important. It inspires the young and the not-so-young. It grabs media attention that can translate into popular political support on key issues. But our next president (who I hope will be Senator Barack Obama) must move beyond symbolism to address harsh racial and gender realities in this country.

The U.S. is still smarting over recent strong UN critiques of its racial record (see links in "Concluding Observations?": Just the Beginning," “Race-ing Human Rights in the U.S.,” and “UN on Katrina, Race, and Housing.") The administration has, to its credit (I don’t get to say that very often), opened itself to some additional scrutiny. It has invited an independent international expert to review its current practice on race.

Diene has been meeting with officials and grassroots groups in Chicago, New York, Omaha, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Washington, DC, Miami, and San Juan to gather information about racial realities in the U.S. Recent reports on racial injustice and poverty in the U.S. by Global Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the US Human Rights Network (a coalition of groups) detail the widespread human rights impact of employment, housing, and educational discrimination, racial disparities in health care, police brutality, racialized imprisonment rates, and abuses against immigrants.
Information on the Special Rapporteur’s meetings so far, remaining schedule of public meetings, and on how to submit written documentation can be found here and here.

Diene’s review occurs during the lead-up to the separate UN Durban + 5 Review—Durban Review Conference 2009, scheduled for 20 April-24 April, 2009, in Geneva (see’s list of related links here). That conference will attempt to take a global snapshot of responses to racism and progress on recommendations made at the World Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa in 2001.

The next U.S. president must come to terms with racism (and the sexism and other forms of discrimination that often intersect with it). And that president will have to do so on a much deeper level than mere exchanges of competing internet video soundbites and dueling media pundits can provide. Our discriminatory past and present, in all its complexity, is not only reprehensible and unjust: it violates our international human rights obligations.

(Photo: U.S. anti-apartheid activist Sylvia Hill (center) with Gay McDougall (now UN Independent Expert on Minorities (right) and former President of the Republic of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. From No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half-Century: 1950-2000 (William Minter, Gail Hovey, and Charles Cobb, Jr. eds., 2007).

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