In Geneva, Switzerland late last month the Bush Administration continued to deny the existence and acute effects of racism in America.
The U.S. Government was on the defensive before a panel of United Nations experts who questioned officials about America's record on acting to eliminate racial discrimination, which it is obligated to do under the international treaty, the Convention of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Under the convention, every two years, signatory countries are required to update a report on the progress in identifying and remedying racial discrimination. For the first time since 2001, the U.S. submitted a report and actually showed up.
While the convention defines racial discrimination as resulting from laws, policies and programs that have the purpose or the effect of discriminating based on race, U.S. law requires evidence of a specific intent in order to prove racial discrimination.
The U.N. experts, whose thoughtful probing was in large measure informed by the work of the US Human Rights Network, were blunt and challenged the Bush administration over racial profiling, police brutality, the race-related effects of Hurricane Katrina and other aspects of American life marred by institutionalized racism.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. delegation utilized the classical excuse that shifts the blame back onto communities affected by racism.
While acknowledging, for example, that African-Americans are over represented in the prison population, are more likely to receive the death penalty, and along with other persons of color, suffer from disparities relating to housing and education, the Bush spinners fell back on that old saw that mere "correlations" between outcomes and race are meaningless.
So, for example, they claimed that racial disparities revealed to the world in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina had nothing to do with racism but really were to do with factors like poverty.
And in the worldview of the Bush Administration, poverty is about behavior, bad choices and dysfunctional families. The underlying message from this administration was clear; poor people are in jail, living in sub-standard housing, and unemployed because of the way they behave.
The fact that in America, a majority of these folks are people of color is just an unfortunate coincidence that has nothing to do with discrimination.
So however stark the disparities are, however many studies reveal inequality based on race, unless you can prove the discrimination was intentional, there is no affirmative obligation on the part of the government to do anything.
The sanctimonious predictability of the U.S. delegation aside, however, this week in Geneva, did represent a milestone in our effort to draw attention to a new paradigm for assessing and addressing race discrimination in America.
Over 120 activists and experts from around the country, representing groups as diverse in size and purpose as the American Civil Liberties Union to the People's Hurricane Relief Fund of New Orleans came to Geneva, with our analysis in hand, commanded the attention of the United Nations Committee and the international press corps and put forth our vision for eliminating race discrimination from the fabric of American life.
That vision is centered on the notion of building a human rights culture in America, one that articulates and ultimately codifies the universal human rights standards embodied in international law that provides the legal and moral framework for truly addressing race discrimination and oppression in America.
Indeed before his untimely death over 43 years ago, it was Malcolm X who insisted that what were then called "civil rights" were really "human rights" to which all peoples of the world were entitled. This week in Geneva, activists from the U.S. stood on his shoulders and the shoulders of all those who came before him who believed in the vision of a new society based on human rights and human dignity. We believe that our work in Geneva on the anniversary of Malcolm's death marks the beginning of a new era in the struggle that will make this vision a reality.
Ajamu Baraka is the Executive Director the U.S. Human Rights Network.