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Far Too Little, Much Too Late

Nahal Zamani,
Human Rights Program
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January 15, 2009

In 1994, the U.S. signed and ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), pledging to take steps to identify and eliminate discrimination based on race in America. Last year, the United Nations Committee that oversees compliance with CERD issued a strongly-worded critique of the U.S.’ record on racial discrimination and a series of recommendations for U.S. compliance with the treaty. The U.S. was given one year to follow up on five key issues identified by the Committee as particularly concerning: racial profiling (particularly of Arabs, Muslims and South Asians), the situation of the Western Shoshone indigenous peoples, the disproportionate number of minority youth sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, the disparate impact Hurricane Katrina continues to have on low-income African Americans, and the lack of awareness about CERD in the U.S.

On Tuesday, the U.S. government issued a grossly inadequate response to the CERD Committee’s recommendations. The report, which barely stretches past sixteen pages, is a last-minute attempt by the Bush administration to whitewash the ongoing racial discrimination suffered by people of color in the United States. Full of glaring omissions about the racial and ethnic discrimination that occurs in the United States, the report fails to address the persistence of structural racism and inequality in this country.

Last month’s shooting of an unarmed man by a transit police officer in Oakland, California is hardly representative of the “multi-faceted approach to combating racial profiling” that the U.S. Department of Justice boasts about in its response. In fact, it shows the vicious manifestation of ongoing racial profiling and the institutionalization of racism in its most violent forms.

The U.S.’ claim that “the imposition of life without parole sentences on juveniles is a lawful practice that is imposed in rare cases” is little consolation to the 2,500 people currently serving such sentences in America. (The U.S. is the only nation to permit the sentencing of youth to life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed while under the age of 18.) Though the CERD Committee chastised the U.S. for continuing this practice and expressed explicit concern about the disproportionate number of African-American and Latino youth who receive such harsh sentences, Human Rights Watch has documented its persistence in America.

These omissions and gross understatements come as no surprise: last year’s report by the U.S. to the CERD Committee also swept under the rug the dramatic effects of widespread racial and ethnic discrimination in this country. (In response, the ACLU released a comprehensive analysis of institutionalized racism in America.)

Our country can do better and must not stand for such flagrant whitewashing of racism. The Obama administration must take a fresh look at the CERD recommendations and actively implement proactive measures to combat racial and ethnic discrimination.

To learn more about the ACLU’s efforts to fight racial discrimination, visit

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