Thursday, February 21, marks the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. It is appropriate that, on this date, 250 American human rights organizations will challenge the U.S. at the United Nations for violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a treaty the U.S. ratified in 1994. Arrogant American contempt for the UN does not insulate it from treaty obligations, which have the force of law. This year’s treaty-mandated U.S. report to the U.N. refuses to acknowledge the racial disparities witnessed by the whole planet in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the fact of racist police brutality, or the majority non-white nature of the American prison gulag. The challenge to the official American report to the U.N. is also a salute to the legacies of Malcolm X and the great Paul Robeson, who urged African Americans to transform the domestic fight for "civil rights" to a global battle for common "human rights."
It is a shameful indictment of American political culture that, even though the United Nations headquarters is physically located in the U.S., on the east side of Manhattan island, it might as well be in Sri Lanka or New Delhi when it comes to U.S. media attention. What the U.N. does is considered important news in most of the world, especially in the developing and formerly colonized world. But American media, much of it headquartered within walking distance of the United Nations, most often behaves as if the world body doesn’t exist.
Racism and imperial chauvinism are at the root of thinly veiled U.S. disdain for the United Nations. The U.N. was founded, in 1945, as a creature of the winners of World War Two. The cards were stacked in the United States‘ favor, with America and its ideological allies arrayed against the Soviet Union in the U.N. Security Council, and much of the planet still under European colonial rule. With decolonization in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, the U.N. became a much more "non-white" environment. Membership now includes nearly 200 countries. Apparently, that’s way too much "color" for the white American comfort zone.
The American delegation to the U.N. will be even more discomforted on February 21st and 22nd, when the U.S. will be taken to task on its own domestic race relations. Many Americans don’t know, or don’t care, that international treaties to which the U.S. is a part have the force of law within the United States. One of those treaties is the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which was adopted by the U.S. in 1994. Yet this is only the second year that Washington has even bothered to issue a report to the U.N. on the state of race relations in the U.S. – a report that the U.S. Human Rights Network calls a "whitewash."
The Human Rights Network is a coalition of 250 activist groups across the nation. They charge the Bush administration with being "utterly out of touch with the reality of racial discrimination in America." Washington fails "to even acknowledging the disparate racial impact on people of color of Hurricane Katrina." Police brutality against people of color is totally neglected in the official American report, which also sidesteps the question of why 60 percent of U.S. prison inmates are non-white. Muslims and people of Arab descent are targeted for draconian roundups and other pressures, in violation of the spirit and letter of the treaty, while Native Americans continue to suffer under the "legacy of colonialism and racial discrimination in the U.S."
Many Americans conveniently forget – or just don’t give a damn – that racial discrimination violates a host of international laws. It is fitting that the U.S. will be confronted with many of these violations on Thursday, February 21st, the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. It was Malcolm who insisted that what were then called "civil rights" were really "human rights" to which all people’s of the world were entitled. In this, he picked up the banner waved by Paul Robeson and other African Americans of the Left, in the late 1940s, with their petition charging the United States with genocide against Black Americans. Malcolm’s voice infused the Black Freedom Movement with an internationalist perspective; he called for African Americans to stand up as citizens of the world, rather than act like an isolated minority begging favors from a hostile domestic majority. Malcolm’s legacy, and Paul Robeson’s legacy, still challenge African Americans to grow up, to transcend Jim Crow politics, and to finally take their places on the liberation side of the world stage.
For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Glen Ford.