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Rampant U.S. racism in focus at U.N. review

Entrenched racism, white nationalism, aggressive policing and xenophobia burden and stifle the lives, aspirations and rights of Americans nationwide.

America's legacy of racial discrimination: Barracks at the "Heart Mountain Relocation Center" near Cody, Wyoming
America's legacy of racial discrimination: Barracks at the "Heart Mountain Relocation Center" near Cody, Wyoming, one of the incarceration camps where more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent were held by the U.S. government during World War II (AN/R. Powers)

WASHINGTON (AN) — From America’s borders to its prison cells, city streets and tribal lands, entrenched racism, white nationalism, aggressive policing and xenophobia burden and stifle the lives, aspirations and rights of people of color across the United States.

These and other findings were laid out in damning evidence among the more than 70 submissions about America's legacy of racial strife and struggle for justice and freedom that organizations provided to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, or CERD, for its meetings in the Swiss multilateral hub of Geneva. Over the past two days, CERD put America's racial justice record under a microscope.

U.S. officials pledged to improve America's record of battling racial discrimination — but did not address a call by some U.N. experts for the nation to make reparations for centuries of systemic racism. While examining the U.S. government's report to the committee in June and all of the other evidence and testimony, experts questioned why the U.S. lacks a national human rights institute and has not taken effective measures to lower its soaring gun violence.

"Quite simply, we must do better," the head of the U.S. delegation, Michèle Taylor, said in her closing statement on Friday. Taylor, the U.S. ambassador to the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council, said U.S. President Joe Biden's administration is "deeply committed to the elimination of racial discrimination in the United States using all the levers at our disposal. These past few days have given us new ideas and new energy as we continue that work."

Taylor said one of the nation's core values is its stand against hate and discrimination, yet "we are painfully aware that our history is colored by systemic and institutionalized racism" and efforts are being made at all levels of government "to achieve a more perfect union based on a bedrock of equality and justice."

CERD's 18 independent experts from around the world — including one American, Fordham University law professor Gay McDougall, an expert on international human rights law — are spending three weeks examining racism in Azerbaijan, Benin, Nicaragua, Slovakia, Suriname, the United States, and Zimbabwe. Wan-Hea Lee, a U.N. human rights office division chief for civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, said the committee wanted to take a particularly close look at the treatment of migrants at international borders due to pushbacks, restrictions in asylum procedures, and criminalization of irregular immigration.

Its experts oversee compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which entered into force in 1969. It is the main international human rights treaty that defines and prohibits racial discrimination in all aspects of private and public life, and now includes 182 nations. The United States ratified it in 1994.

America's legacy of racial discrimination: A monument erected on the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia memorializes the state's Confederate rebels
America's legacy of racial discrimination: A monument erected on the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia memorializes the state's Confederate rebels who fought in the U.S. Civil War in a doomed effort to perpetuate slavery (AN/R. Powers)

More federal coordination demanded

Committee member Pansy Tlakula, who has held a series of prominent South African government posts, asked the U.S. government to provide an update on what it has done in response to the U.N. Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, which concluded in 2016 that the history of U.S. slavery calls for reparations to African Americans. She noted the group of experts recommended the creation of a federal commission on reparations, which has still not happened. "You have not responded at all to the issue of reparations," she told the U.S. delegation after two days of discussions.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch sent a joint submission to the committee describing U.S. compliance with the treaty as “elusive — indeed, grossly inadequate” in reparations, discrimination in criminal justice, use of police force, immigration and social protection. Jamil Dakwar, director of ACLU’s human rights program, and Stephanie Amiotte, ACLU legal director in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, each testified before the committee. He spoke about systemic police violence; she discussed the dearth of Native American history in U.S. schools.

“The committee unequivocally rebuked the United States for failing in almost every racial justice issue covered by the anti-racism treaty, which it directly linked to the legacies of slavery and colonialism," Dakwar said. “We hope the Biden administration will take bold measures in response to the committee’s deep concerns. Those measures must prioritize building human rights infrastructure here at home, including a domestic human rights monitoring and enforcement body, a federal commission to study reparations for slavery, and other proactive measures to end structural racism.”

Amnesty International says the U.S. government is at best utterly failing on commitments to address racial disparities and human rights. In some regards, Amnesty says, the U.S. is backsliding on previous progress by ending a 17-year federal moratorium and executing 13 people in the waning days of the Trump administration and by taking away abortion rights of millions of American women.

“Inaction at the federal and state level has allowed gun violence to run rampant, severely impacting Black and brown communities, while police increasingly shoot and kill people of color, largely with impunity,” Amnesty says in its submission to the committee.

Protesters say their right to peaceful assembly over events like the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is threatened by overpolicing and the excessive use of force motivated by racism. Police should be held to account, Amnesty says, for attacking and detaining peaceful protesters and for arbitrarily targeting journalists, street medics, legal observers and other human rights defenders.

Rather than serving as peacemakers, former U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration fueled the racial violence in his campaign to undermine U.S. democracy and the peaceful transition of power. Not only did Trump and his minions refuse to condemn the ideology of white supremacy, but they went so far as to encourage mobs of mostly white men through race-baiting and endlessly repeating Trump’s "big lie" denying his loss of the November 2020 election to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. As the world has seen, the indefensible behavior of Trump and his followers in the Republican Party culminated on January 6, 2021, with armed insurrectionists storming the U.S. Capitol.

The National Conference of Black Lawyers submitted the results of an international commission of inquiry conducted last year with the International Association of Democratic Lawyers  and National Lawyers Guild. That commission said it found "a pattern and practice of racist police violence in the U.S. in the context of a history of oppression dating back to the extermination of First Nations peoples, the enslavement of Africans, the militarization of U.S. society, and the continued perpetuation of structural racism."

"Under color of law, Black people are targeted, surveilled, brutalized, maimed and killed by law enforcement officers with impunity," said the commission's panel of judges, lawyers, professors and experts from Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Britain, Costa Rica, France, India, Jamaica, Japan, Nigeria, Pakistan and South Africa. "Many Black people are killed in broad daylight to intimidate communities and because officers don't fear accountability."

The U.S. getting 'brought to task'

Physicians for Human Rights says systemic racial bias in the U.S. criminal justice system continues unabated, including the persistent use of excessive force by law enforcement and disproportionate deaths in custody among people of color.

It recommends the U.S. administration restore proper use of U.S. refugee laws and treaties "for all asylum seekers, without exceptions, including at U.S. ports of entry," and process families and children at the border "swiftly and humanely," rather than detain kids in cages as documented under the Trump administration.

"Discriminatory treatment of asylum seekers and foreign nationals is an ongoing issue of concern in the U.S.," the group says. "There is a persistent trend of using public health 'protection' as a pretext to justify racist and xenophobic U.S. immigration policies, dating back to typhus, trachoma and HIV, and now COVID-19."

Addressing health issues, Amnesty says roadblocks to accessing legal abortions in many regions of the U.S. affect reproductive healthcare and enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

“While abortion restrictions impact the rights of all people who can become pregnant, they disproportionately affect women and girls from racial minorities and compound racial disparities in maternal and reproductive health services,” Amnesty says.

More than 150 years after the end of the U.S. Civil War, a Confederate battle flag flies over a public square in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas
America's legacy of racial discrimination: More than 150 years after the end of the U.S. Civil War, a Confederate battle flag flies over a public square in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas, just a few blocks from a national park (AN/R. Powers)

They still need to fight for change

Minority women are more likely to live in states with the harshest abortion restrictions and, as they are much less likely to have access to comprehensive healthcare or contraceptives to prevent unintended pregnancy, are more likely to seek abortion than white women, Amnesty says.

Indigenous women, it says, face “highly disproportionate rates of sexual violence.” The limited data suggests that more than 56 percent of Native women in the U.S. have experienced sexual violence, more that twice the national average rate of sexual assault. What’s more, Amnesty says, 84.3% of Indigenous women have experienced some type of violence over the course of their lives.

Two years ago, Amnesty itself faced scrutiny as an international organization with a culture of white privilege. An internal review commissioned by its secretariat in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement found "systemic biases" and repeated racism such as incidents of "overtly racist language being used" by staff. Amnesty's international board pledged to improve.

In its U.S. review, Amnesty found “routine discrimination” against asylum seekers in U.S. policy and in the practices of officials of the Department of Homeland Security and its agencies.

Trump took it even further, pushing discriminatory and xenophobic portrayals of asylum seekers as “criminals” and “illegal aliens” while raising the burden of proof for asylum claims. At Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, “the quagmire” of the detention facility at the U.S. Naval base continues with no sign of progress towards its closure.

More than two decades after the detention center received its first detainee, 37 foreign nationals — all Muslim — remain unlawfully detained, the majority without charge. None, Amnesty notes, has been given a fair trial. Some have been held for more than 20 years.

As the erosion of basic rights continues, Amnesty says, the U.S. government must be called out and “brought to task” by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Desirée Cormier Smith, the U.S. State Department's special representative for racial equity and justice, told the U.N. committee that she felt deeply grateful for the groups and individuals representing Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other communities of color who showed up at the review, and who work every day to uplift their communities and break down institutional and structural barriers that prevent them from thriving.

"But it saddens me that they still have to do it," she said.

These groups and individuals are "fighting for many of the same freedoms — the freedom to breath clean air, the freedom to raise their own children, the freedom to have their children grow up without the constant threat of violence, the freedom to practice their own cultures and traditions — that so many White Americans take for granted," said Cormier Smith. "This is the ugly, disgraceful, and enduring legacy of the enslavement of Africans and their descendants and the displacement of Indigenous peoples on which our country — and many around the world — were founded."

This story has been updated with additional details. John Heilprin contributed from Geneva and Bern, Switzerland.