That’s a question posed by Julia Jordan-Zachery, an associate professor of political science at Providence College, about the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown.
American civil and human rights organizations are in Geneva, Switzerland this week for the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The U.N. organization is examining what critics call persistent racial inequality in the United States. Rights leaders in attendance say the Obama administration has made progress on the issue, yet events like the death of Brown are a harsh reminder that the elusive promise of a post-racial world that Obama seemed to represent when he took office remains unrealized.
Many think the administration has not done enough.
“We haven’t seen the kind of movement that we would like to see from this administration on racial justice,” Ejim Dike, executive director of the United States Human Rights Network, told Fusion. Her group helped organize some 80 advocates to participate in this week’s convention in Geneva, which meets to review treaty compliance by all signatory countries. This week the United States, El Salvador and Peru were up for review.
“This [convention] is a very important opportunity for this administration to reprioritize eliminating racial disparities,” Dike said.
In 1994, the U.S. signed and ratified the CERD, which calls for a U.N. progress report on eliminating racial prejudice and disparities.
The panel last met in 2008 when George W. Bush was president. Then, the U.S. was found to be non-compliant in several of the same areas like de facto segregation in education and persistent racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Obama proponents point to the Fair Sentencing Act, which seeks to eliminate some of the sentencing discrepancies between those convicted of possession of crack cocaine (mostly blacks) and powder cocaine (mostly whites). Rights activists also say the administration has taken steps to help reduce discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. They also praise Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, a public-private program aimed at improving the lives of young black men and boys.
“Many of the universally accepted racial discrimination standards are incorporated into U.S. law, but many are not,” said Dike.
Dike called attention to Stand Your Ground laws, which in practice disproportionately affect people of color, even though the language of the law is not overtly discriminatory, she said. “But overt discrimination is not the way contemporary forms of discrimination play out. Nothing about [Stand Your Ground] says that it should be used that way, but it doesn’t change the fact.”
The Brown shooting in Ferguson has brought the issues of racial profiling back to the forefront of the convention. Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, and Ron Davis, the father of Jordan Davis, the African American teenager who was shot and killed at a Florida gas station, also testified in Geneva along with other rights experts.
“[Fulton and Davis] are raising the issue of gun violence and racial profiling in our communities as people who lost their children,” Jotaka L. Eaddy, senior advisor to the president & CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) told Fusion in a phone interview.
“In some ways this crisis in our nation is not getting any better,” she said.
Eaddy said the NAACP went to the convention mainly to raise awareness on voting discrimination, an issue on which she contends the Obama administration has had some success. But the realities of the African American community cannot be ignored, she said.
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“It has been a top priority for this President and his administration to fulfill the promise of the Civil Rights Act through all of our work, whether it’s through taking steps to root out discrimination or to expand economic opportunity for all Americans, so that everyone who works hard has a fair shot to get ahead,” a White House official told Fusion.
The official also noted that every agency has an office of civil rights to address inequalities. They also highlighted the fact that the first bill the president signed into law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, was aimed at strengthening anti-discrimination laws.
Still, critics point out that lawsuits brought annually by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have dropped by more than half since Obama first came to office. The commission is responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws.
“The EEOC is the main player. Nobody brings more suits,” says Michael Selmi, a George Washington University professor and author of the report The Obama Administration’s Civil Rights Record: The Difference an Administration Makes. “The fact that [the EEOC’s] caseload is so low, and nobody has given it really any notice at all is troublesome.”
Chandra Bhatnagar, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Human Rights Program, criticized the Obama administration’s record on race equality. He said the U.S. needs to address the fact that it has still not enacted many of the U.N.’s 2008 recommendations, in particular the mandate to create a National Plan of Action to combat racial discrimination.
“Real action is lacking here,” Bhatnagar said. “But there’s at least another year and a half of this administration where change can happen and where progress can be made. It’s not too late.”