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"Racism is a Mutant"

Maya Harris,
ACLU of Northern California
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February 19, 2008

The more I engage in this process in Geneva, the clearer it has become how significant our voices are to the U.N.’s efforts to review the United States. The CERD Committee and other U.N. officials really rely on American nongovernmental organizations (NGO) to learn what’s actually happening. Given that context, it was quite an honor to be invited to give testimony about California before the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Racism, Mr. Doudou Diène.

I expressed surprise that California was not featured among the state case studies in the U.S. report (PDF) when it is the largest, most diverse state in the country, and then drew Diène’s attention to the extraordinary disparities in our education and criminal justice systems. Other ACLU staff spoke of the proliferation of anti-immigrant ordinances across the country and Katrina-related issues such as conditions at the Orleans Parish prison and housing discrimination in Mississippi. Our testimony complemented that of a broad array of other organizations.

After listening to the NGOs’ testimony, Diène expressed concern about the “ethnic and racialized view of immigration” that creates division, as well as the threat posed by the rise in racist and xenophobic political platforms in mainstream democratic systems. He noted that the “ideological reading of human rights,” particularly since 9/11, was a troubling development. In his travels around the world, Diène said he has observed a “lack of solidarity among victims,” but that “without a united front among victims, there is no ability to combat racism.” In closing, he cautioned that “racism is a mutant.” It’s constantly changing and evolving, and while it must be fought by law, the law alone is not enough to stop its reach. We have to get at the deeper, entrenched roots of racism, he said, “the culture and mentality of racism.”

Diène plans to visit the U.S. on a fact-finding mission soon, though he has yet to decide which states to tour.The last time the Special Rapporteur on Racism visited the U.S. was in 1994. The U.N. report after that visit called on the U.S. to, among other things, revitalize affirmative action programs, take measures to increase funding for public schools, and abolish the death penalty or at least eliminate its discriminatory application.

Of course, since that time, California banned affirmative action with Proposition 209 in 1996; the ACLU had to sue the state in 2000 to secure basic necessities for kids of color in California public schools; and the first-ever study on the role of race and ethnicity in California death sentencing, published in 2005, revealed disparities based on the race of the victim.

I hope Mr. Diène comes to California. I think we have a lot of illuminating information to share.

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