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UN to US: Do More on Racial Discrimination

Photo by bandita.
Photo by bandita.
By Antonio Ginatta
The United States received a roadmap today on how to improve its record on fighting racial discrimination. It came from a United Nations committee that had spent some time earlier this month questioning US government representatives on US compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which the US ratified 20 years ago, in 1994.

In its report, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination highlights some of the positive steps the United States has taken in the last few years, like passing the Fair Sentencing Act, which helped to reduce racial disparities in drug sentencing. The old drug laws, which punished crack cocaine-related offenses much more harshly than powder cocaine offenses, may not have been written to target African Americans directly, but since African Americans are more likely to be charged with crack offenses, the disparate results were obvious.

A key message from the committee to the United States was to tackle other forms of indirect discrimination—when the purpose of the laws aren’t to discriminate but the results have a greater effect on racial and ethnic minorities. Human Rights Watch stressed this issue in July a submission to the committee.

The committee found that African Americans “continue to be disproportionately arrested, incarcerated and subjected to harsher sentences, including life without parole and the death penalty.” Regardless of the intent behind these laws and policies,laws mandating minimum sentences for certain offenses, particularly drug offenses, and prosecutorial discretion were resulting in the “over-representation of racial and ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system.”

The call to act on indirect discrimination by the committee wasn’t limited to just the criminal justice arena. The committee recommended that the US tackle the disparate impact of environmental pollution on minority communities and indigenous peoples. And the committee noted that US states that chosen to not reduce the number of people with no health insurance by opting out of the Affordable Care Act had substantial numbers of racial and ethnic minorities.

As the committee acknowledged, the United States has made some progress in its efforts to end discrimination, but still has a long way to go—one need only pick up a recent newspaper to know that story. These committee findings chart a helpful path forward—US policymakers should take heed of them.

Reprinted with permission from Human Rights Watch.

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