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U.N. Independent Expert Recommends Remedies for U.S. Race Relations

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May 11, 2009

“The historical, cultural and human depth of racism still permeates all dimensions of life in American society,” says Doudou Diène, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Diène, a Senegalese attorney appointed to his post by the United Nations Human Rights Council, toured the United States last year for approximately three weeks, meeting with local, state and federal officials and non-governmental organizations, including the ACLU. He just issued a report of his findings based on that visit.

Given that his mandate spans the globe, Diène’s recommendations for the U.S. are remarkably spot-on. For instance, to remedy racial discrimination in law enforcement — where “instances of direct discrimination and concrete bias…are most pronounced” — Diène suggests the U.S. should adopt the federal End Racial Profiling Act, pass state legislation prohibiting racial profiling, and take other steps to monitor and address profiling by police. The U.S. should also review mandatory minimum sentences, improve public defender services, and eliminate life without parole sentences for people convicted of crimes committed as juveniles, all of which contribute to the over-criminalization of people of color.

Diène’s findings pay particular attention what he calls “the most important means of promoting equality of opportunity”: ensuring that all students have access to quality education. With that goal in mind, he calls upon the United States to examine zero tolerance and other harsh disciplinary policies, and to “revisit those measures that are disproportionately affecting racial or ethnic minorities.” He also calls for measures to combat the resegregation of public schools and expresses his “particular…concern…about the retraction of affirmative action policies.”

Diène’s report has much in common with the findings of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which, in March 2008, also called upon the United States to eliminate racial discrimination, highlighting, among other things, the persistence of racial profiling.

Following the release of Diène report, Chandra Bhatnagar of the ACLU Human Rights Program stated:

Our government invited the U.N. Special Rapporteur to conduct a thorough analysis of racial discrimination in the United States, and now our government should take notice of the widespread and systemic problems that he documented. The report highlights very serious issues including racism in the criminal justice system, and the disparity between sentencing for crack and powder cocaine, serious abuses facing immigrant and African-American workers in the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the overall vulnerability of immigrant workers around the country, and the need to meaningfully address the ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’ The Obama administration has an opportunity to address all of these important issues and this report offers us a path forward toward justice, equality and human rights for all.”

Diène’s report will be presented before the Human Rights Council on June 16 in Geneva, Switzerland. Coincidentally tomorrow, the United Nations General Assembly will be electing the new members of the Human Rights Council, and the list of new members will include the U.S., which last month has made a bid to join the council. We hope the Obama administration will take Diène’s report, as well as the CERD committee recommendations, seriously and incorporate them into the existing policy reviews and discussions.

In his famous speech on race, Obama said: “America can change … Not just with words, but with deeds — by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.” We could not agree more, and with U.S. action to end racial discrimination, it will send the right message to the world that U.S. commitment to human rights goes beyond words.

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