Racial Discrimination: Progress, but “Much Work Remains”

The U.S. government issued a major report to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last week, focusing attention on the ongoing existence of racial disparities in the U.S.

The report does a decent job of responding to several of the demands we made at a government consultation in February, together in coalition with the National Fair Housing Alliance, Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN), Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, Poverty and Race Research Action Council, UC Irvine School of Law–Human Rights Clinic/ Boarding School Healing Coalition, and Coalition to Protect Public Housing/Chicago Independent Human Rights Council.

The report celebrates important advancements in promoting racial equality, such as a recently published Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rule on the implementation of a discriminatory effects standard with regard to housing and the Cabinet-level Re-entry Council on promoting reintegration, including through housing, of those returning from prison or jail, who are disproportionately racial and ethnic minorities.

But equally importantly, the report also recognizes that “racial and ethnic discrimination still persists, and much work remains to meet our goal of ensuring equality for all.” It clearly addresses the disproportionate impact of homelessness on racial minority populations, stating, “In 2011, nearly 60% of all sheltered homeless persons were minorities,” and promotes the Federal Strategic Plan to End Homelessness as steps to end homelessness as a whole, including its disparate impact. It also notes that the lack of a right to civil counsel is “felt acutely by members of racial and ethnic minorities,” and promotes the Department of Justice (DOJ’s) Access to Justice Initiative.

In acknowledging the scope of issues that exist, this report represents a marked improvement for the Obama Administration over the previous administration’s report, which was issued in 2007. With the 2010 Universal Periodic Review, the Administration has developed new outreach efforts for gathering input from civil society organizations (like ours), and improved coordination within federal agencies, through the informal inter-agency Equality Working Group.

However, the very fact that the Equality Working Group has no formal statutory or regulatory institutionalization means that future administrations could easily reverse this progress. The Law Center is a founding member of the Human Rights at Home Campaign, which demands a stronger institutionalization of interagency human rights implementation mechanisms within federal, state, and local governments.

Moreover, the report glosses over steps the government has failed to take – such as HUD and DOJ providing actual incentives through their grantmaking processes to communities to combat criminalization of homelessness, providing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau the clear authority to enforce the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, or pushing for full funding of the National Housing Trust Fund through a revision of the Mortgage Income Tax Deduction.

Disappointingly, the report also clings to previous Administrations’ assertion that Article 5 of the Race Convention does not require the government to ensure equality in the enjoyment of the right to housing and other economic and social rights, but merely to prohibit discrimination to the extent those rights are provided in domestic law.  The Obama Administration missed an important opportunity to robustly assert its economic agenda with regard to housing, healthcare, jobs, and education as part of its obligation to ensure racial equity and equality in referring to these as “goals” rather than rights which must be upheld.

Last, but not least, President Obama missed an opportunity to personally make a public statement on the implementation of the race treaty, and on the racial divide that remains in our country – celebrating our advances, but giving a frank acknowledgement of how far we have left to go, and of our moral and legal commitment to do so. This includes that the race convention requires full implementation not just of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, but of the Housing Act of 1949, whose goal is to ensure a decent home for every American. Luckily there are more opportunities as the U.S. progresses to its hearing with the Committee in October – hopefully Obama will seize the chance, as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, to help the country “realize that we have moved from an era of civil rights, to an era of human rights.”

– Eric Tars, Director of Human Rights and Children’s Rights Programs

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