Scathing U.N. report: "Structural racism" endures in U.S., and the government has failed to protect African-Americans' rights

U.N. group condemns mass incarceration, drug war, "human rights crisis" of police killings; calls for reparations

Published October 7, 2016 6:30PM (EDT)

Demonstrators in Oakland, California, July 7, 2016.   (Reuters/Stephen Lam)
Demonstrators in Oakland, California, July 7, 2016. (Reuters/Stephen Lam)

A detailed report by a United Nations group has harshly condemned the many forms of structural racism black Americans face in the United States, and called for reparations for centuries of enslavement, segregation and discrimination.

The U.S. government is "not acting with due diligence to protect the rights of African Americans," the group said. It called for more thorough civil rights laws, and encouraged the government to create a national plan to comprehensively address racism.

"There is a profound need to acknowledge that the transatlantic trade in Africans, enslavement, colonization and colonialism were a crime against humanity and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, Afrophobia, xenophobia and related intolerance," the U.N. group stressed. "Past injustices and crimes against African Americans need to be addressed with reparatory justice."

These recommendations were made in a recent report by the U.N. Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. This group is made up of prominent human rights advocates and lawyers from around the world.

Despite some gradual gains over the decades, the working group cautioned that it "remains extremely concerned about the human rights situation of African Americans." Its report continued: "In particular, the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality in the United States remains a serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent."

Since civil rights activists pressured the government to abolish Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, the U.N. group said, "a systemic ideology of racism ensuring the domination of one group over another continues to impact negatively on the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of African Americans today."

This new systemic racism manifests itself in numerous forms, through police brutality, mass incarceration, extreme poverty and drastically inequitable access to resources and social services.

The report criticized what it called "the epidemic of racial violence by the police." The U.N. group recommended "urgent action" on the issue, noting, "Contemporary police killings and the trauma that they create are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching."

"Impunity for State violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency," the report said. It described lynching as "a form of racial terrorism that has contributed to a legacy of racial inequality that the United States must address."

Mass incarceration, the group furthermore noted, is "considered a system of racial control that operate[s] in a similar way to how Jim Crow laws once operated."

"The devastating impact of the 'War on Drugs' has led to mass incarceration and is compared by African Americans to enslavement, due to the exploitation and dehumanization of African Americans," it added.

The U.N. Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent visited the U.S. from January 19 to 29, 2016. They visited several major cities, including New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington and Jackson, Mississippi. They also met with government officials from various departments at the federal and state level.

Some U.S. officials with whom the group requested to meet did not do so. It was also not given access to Mississippi State Penitentiary, which the group noted "undermines the responsibility of the United States to cooperate with the United Nations human rights mechanisms." It called for the U.S. government to allow independent monitoring of places of detention.

Police violence

Police violence and bias in the criminal justice system are some of the most critical issues addressed in the U.N. report. Black Americans "are disproportionately targeted for police surveillance, and experience and witness public harassment, excessive force and racial discrimination," the group said, adding, "Racial profiling is a rampant practice."

It cited the Department of Justice report on the racially biased policing practices in Ferguson, Missouri, as an example of this institutional discrimination.

The U.N. group expressed deep concern "at the alarming levels of police brutality and excessive use of lethal force by law enforcement officials, committed with impunity against people of African descent in the United States."

The report cited the killings of unarmed black Americans such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and Laquan McDonald, and noted that police officers have rarely "been held accountable for these crimes, despite the evidence."

It also criticized the lack of an official national system in the U.S. that documents police killings. Federal authorities said the absence of this system is largely because the country's 18,000 police departments and law enforcement agencies are not required to report killings.

The group said it "welcomes the growing human rights movement in the United States," recognizing the efforts of civil-society networks like Black Lives Matter.

It called for the development of policing strategies that "give the community control of the police." The report recommended that communities make boards that approve and elect police officers.

Yet "killings of unarmed African Americans by the police is only the tip of the iceberg in what is a pervasive racial bias in the justice system," the group emphasized.

Mass Incarceration

The U.N. working group linked mass incarceration to the War on Drugs. "Mass incarceration has had a disproportionately high impact on people of African descent," it noted. Citing the book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness," by the legal scholar Michelle Alexander, it pointed out that "tough-on-crime" laws and drug laws "have been applied with a racial bias, with deep collateral damage on African Americans."

"The costs of mass incarceration practices must be measured in human lives — particularly the generations of young black men and women who serve long prison sentences and are lost to their families and to society at large," the report said.

While crime rates have decreased in the U.S., the prison population has "soared," the group observed. Black Americans, who make up just over 14 percent of the population, are vastly overrepresented, accounting for 36 percent of federal and state prisoners. Black men are incarcerated at a rate 5.9 times higher than that of white men.

Americans of color are thrust into this system in an early age. Thousands of young black Americans are detained for wrongdoing, the working group noted, "without addressing the root causes of crime, guaranteeing better security to the communities where they lived or offering them effective rehabilitation."

From an early age, black Americans "are treated by the State as a dangerous criminal group and face a presumption of guilt rather than of innocence," the report said.

Moreover, when formerly incarcerated people return to their communities, they often continue to face "serious disadvantages," the group added, which follow them for the rest of their lives. Some re-entry programs do exist, but they are often "not well funded," and do not exist nationwide.

Some federal and state authorities acknowledged to the U.N. working group that mass incarceration "has been ineffective."

Inside prisons, conditions are even worse, the group indicated. It expressed concerns about "inadequate conditions of detention" and "serious barriers in accessing health treatment, including mental health treatment."

It also noted that black Americans are significantly more likely than white Americans to face severe punishments, especially the death penalty.

Solitary confinement is an "extensive practice" in U.S. prisons, the report noted, and black Americans are more likely than whites to be put in solitary confinement.

"Solitary confinement should be banned absolutely for being in violation of international human rights law standards," the group emphasized.

Poverty, homelessness and social services

Extremely inequitable distribution of wealth, resources and social services in the U.S. were also identified by the U.N. working group as forms of structural racism.

"The cumulative impact of racially motivated discrimination faced by African Americans in the enjoyment of their rights to education, health, housing and employment, among other economic, social, cultural and environmental rights, has had serious consequences for their overall well-being," the report said. "Racial discrimination continues to be systemic and rooted in an economic model that denies development to the poorest African American communities."

More than one-fourth of black Americans live in poverty, and the unemployment rate among black Americans is nearly twice the national rate.

The working group said it is "concerned about the criminalization of poverty, which disproportionately affects African Americans." It highlighted the increase in incarceration rates for minor offenses and the proliferation of modern-day debtor prisons, where people are held for being unable to pay debts, fines and fees.

Citing the Department of Justice investigation of the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, the U.N. report noted that in some cities "the imposition of fines is a way to secure revenues rather than to maintain public security."

Many black Americans also have a lack of access to health care and limited access to healthy food, the report noted.

Black Americans are "more likely than other people with similar borrower characteristics to be victims of predatory lending, to receive higher-cost loans and to lose their homes to foreclosure," the U.N. group wrote.

It called on the U.S. government to extend "access to affordable health care to a greater part of the population," indicating that black Americans on average have less access to health care.

Racism's effects are particularly clear among the homeless population, the report continued, noting that more than 40 percent of homeless Americans are black, while black Americans make up only 14 percent of the general population.

"The Government should immediately halt the demolition of public housing if replacement units have not been guaranteed," the U.N. group said.

Environmental racism is also a concern. The report noted that black Americans "are often forced to live in disadvantaged areas with hazardous environments." By being "disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards," their health and standards of living are jeopardized.

Referencing the ways in which racism and sexism intersect, the U.N. group also put emphasis on the ways in which black women are especially hurt by racism. It pointed out that 37 percent of the households headed by black women live below the poverty line.

The working group said it was "concerned at the disproportionate number of African American women subjected to heightened levels of violence, including rape and sexual violence."

"The persistent gap in almost all the human development indicators, such as life expectancy, income and wealth, level of education, and even food security, between African Americans and the rest of the United States population, reflects the level of structural and institutional discrimination that creates de facto barriers for people of African descent to fully exercise their human rights," the report warned.

Schools and the youth

The working group criticized the increasing presence of police in schools, noting this results "in the criminalization of children’s behavior" and "the excessive penalization and harassment of African American children through racial profiling."

It noted that the greater likelihood of black children being targeted "has been described sadly as the 'school to prison pipeline.'"

"Policing in schools should be abolished," the U.N. report insisted. It added that there is "an excessive punishment of poor children for minor offenses" in the justice system overall.

While the number of police is on the rise in schools, public schools themselves are being defunded. The working group said it "is concerned by the underfunding and closure of schools, particularly those in poor neighborhoods with significant African American populations."

The group noted that there is also a continued "de facto segregation of schools." It argued that this reflects "the persistence of a de facto residential segregation in many of the metropolitan areas in the United States," which in turn reflects "the correlation between racial segregation and socioeconomic disparities in access to health, education, and even access to adequate food, between the African American population and the white population."

Furthermore, inside schools around the country, curricula do "not sufficiently cover" historical facts about colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery, the group said.

"The curricula in some states fail to address adequately the root causes of racial inequality and injustice. This contributes to the structural invisibility of African Americans," the report added.

Civil rights laws

Current civil rights laws "are not being fully implemented, the report warned, "and even if fully implemented, they are insufficient to overcome and transform the institutional and structural racial discrimination and racism against people of African descent."

Although the group called for new, more thorough civil rights laws, it cautioned that these alone are not enough. The U.N. group cited "perceived disparities in the commitment levels and capacities" of state and local governments to implement civil rights legislation.

"Authorities at the federal and state levels acknowledged that racial discrimination was a great challenge in the United States and acknowledged the need to adopt focused policies to address existing gaps in order to tackle institutional and structural racism," the report said.

Within the political system, black Americans face forms of disenfranchisement, such as restrictive voter I.D. laws, which the working group noted have "served to discriminate against minorities such as African Americans."

The working group also expressed concerns that the U.S. has not signed and ratified human rights treaties that would permit U.S. citizens to present individual complaints to U.N. human rights treaty bodies or to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It called on the U.S. to ratify these treaties.

Outside the political system, black Americans endure other forms of discrimination. The U.N. working group indicated that "some parts of the media routinely portray African Americans as criminals and this negatively impacts the perception that society in general has of African Americans."

"These practices not only erode trust but also lead to fatal consequences," the report warned.

"The dangerous ideology of white supremacy inhibits social cohesion among the United States population," it added. "Hate crime groups, including white supremacist terror groups, are still active in the United States, targeting African Americans." The group cited as an example the murder of nine black Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. The killer, Dylann Roof, was an avowed white supremacist who had posted neo-Nazi symbols on his personal website.

Much work needs to be done to combat structural racism, the U.N. report stressed, summarizing: "Mass incarceration, police violence, housing segregation, disparity in the quality of education, labor market segmentation, political disenfranchisement and environmental degradation continue to have detrimental impacts on people of African descent, despite the application of civil rights laws."

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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