Op-Ed: Racial Equality Is a Human Right

By Guest Columnist Dec 10, 2009

By Ejim Dike and Ajamu Baraka This week we commemorate the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and President Obama’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. As we engage in dialogue about human rights around the world, we should take a moment to remember that human rights are not only rights that must be upheld in other countries but here at home in the United States as well. Despite the promise of America, social and economic inequalities are still too often delineated along race, ethnicity and gender lines. Too many of the inequalities today can be linked to discriminatory practices and structural barriers to equal opportunity. The good news is that the status quo is unacceptable to most Americans who agree that the color of one’s skin should not affect his or her opportunity and equal enjoyment of human rights. In fact, a recent poll by The Opportunity Agenda found that the majority of Americans believe that freedom from discrimination and equal opportunity regardless of race are human rights. Fortunately, the United States government has already taken steps to demonstrate its conviction that the situation of persistent racial inequality is unacceptable. One key step was the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Convention Against Racial Discrimination). The Convention Against Racial Discrimination is a human rights treaty that requires all ratifying nations to condemn racial discrimination, work to eliminate it in all its forms, and promote understanding among all races. The United States ratified the Convention Against Racial Discrimination in 1994, and at that time, pledged to comply with its terms. So why is this international treaty relevant to people across America? Full implementation of the Convention Against Racial Discrimination is part of America’s promise to protect equal opportunity for everyone and to better address the broad range of issues we still face as a nation including access to basic needs, freedom from all forms of discrimination, and a fair criminal justice system. For example, nearly four years after Hurricane Katrina, people’s right to return to their homes and rebuild their lives and communities with dignity continues to be systematically denied. In its most recent recommendations, the committee of experts responsible for monitoring the Convention Against Racial Discrimination called on the United States to increase “efforts… to facilitate the return of persons displaced by Hurricane Katrina to their homes, if feasible, or to guarantee access to adequate and affordable housing.” The Convention Against Racial Discrimination would also help effectively address racial profiling in a way that existing civil rights law does not. Racial profiling continues to be a widespread and pervasive problem throughout the United States, impacting the lives of millions of people in the African American, Asian, Latino, South Asian, Arab and Muslim communities. Congress can take direct action to help address the scourge of racial and ethnic profiling by bringing this country into conformity with the Convention Against Racial Discrimination. The same Committee of experts mentioned above set out specific recommendations including that the United States move swiftly to adopt the End Racial Profiling Act and end the National Entry and Exit Registration System. While the Obama Administration remains ultimately responsible for ensuring full and good faith compliance with the Convention Against Racial Discrimination, legislative action is needed to effectively implement the Convention’s provisions and promote its full execution. Until we fully recognize that racial equality is a human right and take concrete steps to fulfill our obligations to the people of this country, commemorating Human Rights Day will be a hollow celebration. Ejim Dike, Director, Human Rights Project at Urban Justice Center. Ajamu Baraka, Executive Director, US Human Rights Network. Both are members of the Steering Committee of the Campaign for a New Human Rights Agenda.