Vernellia Randall, International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination - A Call to the Obama Administration for Action
(March 21, 2009)
On 21 March 1960 at least 180 black Africans were injured (there are claims of as many
as 300) and 69 killed when South African police opened fire on approximately 300
demonstrators, who were protesting against the pass laws, at the township of Sharpeville. The
Sharpeville Massacre, as the event has become known, signaled the start of armed resistance in
South Africa, and prompted worldwide condemnation of South Africa's Apartheid policies.
March 21 marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Established
by the United Nations in 1966, the day commemorates the anniversary of the Sharpville
On this day, we must remind ourselves of our obligation to counter and ultimately defeat
all vestiges of racism and xenophobia in all of their virulent forms: intentional and negligent.
Modern day racism is not intentional or individual; it is institutionalized system of
oppression and exploitation that is reinforced by a complex and pervasive system of beliefs,
policies, practices and laws. In the United States, we have eliminated slavery and legal apartheid
(Jim Crow) and that is significant progress. But racism like water finds a way.
Because it is hidden from the eyes of the every day person, racism of the 21st century,
(institutional, structural and systemic) grows as virulent and as egregious as slavery and legal
Few people realize that in every area of life, except civic engagement, Blacks are worst
off than whites. . For instance, based on the 2007 Urban League Report (1):
- •Mortgage Application Denial
- •Life Expectancy at Birth
- •Average Jail Sentence for Murder - male (months)
Few people realize that it is not about class or poverty. That is, in also every area of
American life where there is a disparity between blacks and whites: poor blacks are worst off
than poor whites and middle class black are worst off than middle class whites.
It was my hope that Obama, as the first Black president, would make eliminating these
obvious racial disparities an integrated priority of his administration. It was my hope that Obama
would take a different approach than his all white predecessors.
Unfortunately, Obama appears to reaffirmed long-standing neglect of efforts to eliminate
After months of refusing to participate in the preliminary negotiations, the United States
decided to take part in the "planning" the Durban Review Conference for one week and then
issue and ultimatum to the planning committee - "remove references to Israel, reparations or we
Many would like to make the references to Israel the primary problem - but a look at the
United States history leads me to believe that its the United States desire not to address racism as
an international human rights issue that motivates the Obama Administration behavior.
Case in point:
For over 40 years, the United States has failed to be a leader on eliminating racism.
The United States did not ratify the Treaty on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial
Discrimination (CERD) for 30 years (1994);
When ratifying the treaty the United States, refused to broaden the human rights available
to us and refused to allow us access to international tribunals to resolve issues of racial
The United States failed to issue the required reports under the treaty. Issuing the first
report 5 years late, issuing the 2nd report five years late, and failing to issue reports 3, 4 or 5.
Has consistently failed to fulfill its responsibility under the treaty; In last "concluding
observations to the United States"(2008), the CERD committee noted 32 concerns and
recommendations, several which directed at the condition African Americans. The CERD
Committee was concerned about,
- Residential Segregation (2)
- Criminal Justice: (3)
- Police Brutality: (4)
- Felony Disenfranchisement: (5)
- Katrina Displacement: (6)
Furthermore, the CERD committee asked the United States to report back in a year
(2009) about several urgent concerns:
- racial profiling at the federal and state levels (item 14)
- life sentence without parole against persons under the age of eighteen
- return of persons displaced by Hurricane Katrina
- organize public awareness and education programmes on the Convention and its
Importantly, Obama's decision not to participate in the Durban Review means that the
first Black president will take the same action as his all white predecessors - refusal to engage
and to be a leader in the elimination of racism.
In particular, the United States has failed to fully participate in every world conference on
racism. ( that is ,1978, 1983, 2001) . Now the United States has decided not to participate n the
Durban Review Conference, to held April 20-24, 2009 in Geneva, Switzerland..
The Durban Review Conference is NOT a United Nations World Conference but a review
conference to determine the progress made toward implementing the Durban Plan and
Programme of Action from the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination,
Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in 2001 in Durban, South Africa. That conference
offered a unique opportunity to address an issue that has been plaguing the African Diaspora:
The world governments met the challenge and produced for African Descendants a
historic document. For instance, it
acknowledge[d] that. . . the transatlantic slave trade... [is] among the major source
and manifestations of racism" and that. . . Africans and People of African
Descent... continue to be victims of [its] consequences.
The Declaration recognized colonialism as a source of racial discrimination against
Africans and People of African Descent. The Declaration expressed a commitment to Africans
and People of African Descent and was accompanied by a very specific Programme of Action,
of which Item 4 through Item 14 were specifically directed at Africans and People of African
These items, among other things, called for countries to take affirmative and positive
initiatives in communities of primarily African Descendant, to ensure access to education and
the inclusion of the history of African Descendant, to take steps to remove obstacles that
prevent the full participation of People of African Descent, to ensure full and effective access
to the justice system.
The Programme of Action also called for the United Nations and other international
institutions to, among other things develop capacity building program in communities of
Africans and People of African Descent.
The Question, after eight years, is what progress has the governments, the United
Nations and other institutions made toward the elimination racism, particularly anti-Black
The Durban Review is designed to assess that progress.
Unfortunately, the Durban Review Conference is being hijacked by governments and
members of civil society, including the Obama administration, who may not have the
elimination of racism and racial discrimination, especially for African and People of African
Descent, as their highest priority. In fact, in just the last week, in response to Obama
administration ultimatum, the Durban review committee:
- withdrew language related to reparations;
- removed the proposed paragraph related to the transatlantic slave trade being
a crime against humanity;
- removed proposed paragraphs designed to strengthen the Working Group of
Experts on People of African Descent; and,
- overall weakened the efforts related to people of African Descent.
This is devastating.
It is devastating that the Obama Administration has decided not to work closely with
the international community even though it has said:
"These times demand seriousness and candor, and we pledge to closely work
with our partners in the international community to avoid politicization and to
achieve our shared goals,''
There is time to correct the course.
It is time for the United States to be a leader on eliminating racism in the world and
that can only occur if the United States stays at the international human rights table
including participating the Durban Review Conference to held April 20-24, 2009 in Geneva,
However, that leadership must be positive recognizing as Obama stated:
"Race is a factor in this society. The legacy of Jim Crow and slavery has not gone
away. It is not an accident that the African Americans experience high crime
rates, are poor, and have less wealth. It is a direct result of our racial history. We
have never fully come to grips with that history;"
We challenge President Obama to take immediate and significant steps to repair the
damage and improve the civil rights and human rights landscape in the United States.
Specifically, President Obama:
- Should Appoint Assistant to the President for Racial and Ethnic Equity as a
member of Domestic Policy Council ;
- Should reactivate the federal Interagency Working Group on Human Rights,
established by President Clinton but ignored during the Bush administration, to
coordinate U.S. compliance with its human rights obligations.
- Should advocate for the passage of HR 40 a bill whose only objective is to study
the long-term impact of slavery and which has failed to be passed every year for
the last 30 years that Representative Conyers has introduced it.
- Should revitalize the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and expand the mandate of
the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to include human rights.
- Should advocate for the passage of a Civil Rights Law for the 21st century that
addresses unintentional, negligent discrimination and access to court for hidden
- Should quickly re-engage with the ICERD process, respond substantively to the
U.N. committee's concerns and demonstrate conclusively that the U.S. now takes
its treaty obligation seriously.
- Should commit the U.S. to an active positive role in the Durban Review Process
- .not being an obstacle to reparations in the Durban review document;
- advocating for the recognition that the transatlantic slave trade was a
crime against humanity;
- assuring that significant actions eliminating the vestiges of slavery and
anti-black racism are in the document ; and, finally,
- advocating for making the UN Working Group of Experts on People of
African Descent a permanent forum with appropriate funding and
We ask for President Obama and his Administration to demonstrate in the next 50 days
that he will be a positive, engaged international leader for the elimination of racism, racial
discrimination and all forms of racial intolerance.
On this day, March 21st, International Day International Day for the Elimination of
Racial Discrimination , we can ask for no less.
1. National Urban League, The State of Black America - 2007: Portrait of the Black Male
2. "Concerned that . . African American persons, are disproportionately concentrated in
poor residential areas characterized by sub©standard housing conditions, limited employment
opportunities, inadequate access to health care facilities, under-resourced schools and high
exposure to crime and violence. (Article 3)" (item 16)
3. "concern with regard to the persistent racial disparities in the criminal justice system . . .
due to the harsher treatment that . . . African American persons, receive at various stages of
criminal proceedings. (Article 5 (a))"
4. concerned about allegations of brutality and use of excessive or deadly force by law
enforcement officials against . . . African American persons. . . (item 25)
5. disparate impact that existing felon disenfranchisement laws . . . have on African
American persons, who are disproportionately represented at every stage of the criminal justice
system. (Article 5 (c))
6. remains concerned about the disparate impact that this natural disaster continues to have
on low-income African American residents, many of whom continue to be displaced after more
than two years after the hurricane. (Article 5 (e) (iii))
7. efforts to make government officials, the judiciary, federal and state law enforcement
officials, teachers, social workers and the public in general aware about the responsibilities . . .
under the Convention. . . (item 36)