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US Justice Is Racist, and the UN Is Powerless to Change It

Human Rights Watch points out how the US fails an international promise against racism, but the United Nations can't fix a thing.
July 25, 2014, 10:25pm
Photo by Julian Rotela Rosow

On Friday, Human Rights Watch explicitly stated what any cursory glance at the US justice system would tell you: the United States is racist.

Specifically, the US is racist according to international standards set up to prevent racial discrimination. According to HRW's submission to the UN, this country is failing to comply with protections detailed since 1994 in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

The report focuses on three key features of American injustice in which racial inequity is so severe that it amounts to structural discrimination. Namely, "disparate treatment of youth in adult courts; disparate enforcement of drug offenses; and a system of capital punishment that is linked to issues related to race." Take, for example, the troubling fact that half of all individuals executed in America in 2014 have been black, while only 13 percent of the US population is black. Meanwhile, black individuals are arrested at nearly ten times the rate of arrests of white people for drug offenses, while all studies point towards similar drug-use rates between by white people and black people.

The report highlights the particular American tendency of addressing the optics of racism, without ending how it structurally undergirds the entire US justice system. “The United States is only taking half-steps in addressing race in its criminal justice system,” said Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at HRW. “While working to address intentional discrimination, it does little to fix policies that result in glaring racial disparities.”

HRW is right to point out the US's failure. And while the US will have to appear for periodic review on its racial discrimination record before the UN next month, this does not amount to having to answer for the structural racisms that abound here. Indeed, while the US ratified the ICERD convention twenty years ago, the punishment for failing to meet its protections amounts to little beyond the censure levied at the US and its mass incarceration habit by civil rights groups.

International pressure will accomplish no more than the signing of the UN convention did — the flimsy weight of ink on paper. HRW's call for international condemnation of US racism must be complemented by an escalation of street-level and political activism against the institutions through which racism runs rampant: the police, the courts and the prisons.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

Image via Flickr