At the end of June a lot of media attention was focused on U.S. Supreme Court decisions in cases that impact racial justice in affirmative action, voting rights, and tribal sovereignty. However, less attention was paid to a mid-June, U.S. State Department report to the United Nations on the state of racial justice in the United States. The State Department submitted its report to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) ahead of the Convention Committee’s review of U.S. compliance next year.
In this 2013 report, the U.S. government acknowledges that, while there have been great strides toward eliminating the legacies of racism in destructive laws, policies, and practices, “the path toward racial equality has been uneven; racial and ethnic discrimination still persists.” A national recognition demands a national plan of action, as the U.S. Human Rights Network has written to the Obama Administration:
“Despite a strong civil rights legacy, race disparities linked to institutionalized and structural form of racism continue to exist in almost every sphere of life in the United States… Civil rights laws and agencies have not effectively addressed structural racism and the large disparities it produces in how groups experience institutions such as the justice system, schools, hospitals, and social services. In addition, recent court decisions have undermined some important aspects of civil rights legislation.”
According to a resource of the U.S. Human Rights Network, the ICERD Convention as a human rights treaty is an important tool for the creation of a national plan of action for racial justice in the U.S., because it differs from the narrow scope of civil rights laws in several ways:
1) The treaty applies to government at all levels: federal, state and local, whereas many civil rights statutes prohibit discrimination only by federal agencies and the state and local government programs that receive federal funding.
(2) The treaty prohibits policies and practices that have a discriminatory impact on people of color, thus addressing the structural discriminatory conditions that lead to disparities in social and economic areas. Domestic anti-discrimination law, however, requires evidence of discriminatory intent, when discrimination in the real world can be the product of facially race neutral policies and practices as well as an unintended consequence of individual action.
(3) Countries that have ratified the Convention are obligated to affirmatively take action to redress past racial discrimination and continuing racial disparities. Moreover, the treaty’s human rights framework goes beyond the single-issue approach and recognizes the impact of intersecting forms of discrimination.
The ICERD Convention became effective in 1969, but the U.S. Senate did not ratify it until 1994, twenty-five years later. Was it because our democracy was confident in the resolve of a well-intentioned majority to eliminate the legacy of three centuries of institutionalized racism in a decade or two? Today another twenty years have passed without any national plan of action. Are we again being complicit in the myth that persistent racial disparities are going to right themselves merely as generations pass?
The United Church of Christ has 5,194 churches throughout the United States. Rooted in the Christian traditions of congregational governance and covenantal relationships, each UCC setting speaks only for itself and not on behalf of every UCC congregation. UCC members and churches are free to differ on important social issues, even as the UCC remains principally committed to unity in the midst of our diversity.