After a UN Warning Over Racism, America's Self-Image Begins to Crack
There is a certain expectation, a certain image that comes to mind of the country that receives a rebuke from the United Nations on human rights. One in the south or the east, with a military dictatorship perhaps – a country that has a large oppressed religious or ethnic minority, or has a poor record of treating women as second-class citizens. Earlier this week, the US joined those countries; that publicly shamed stable of those that have incurred the wrath of the global human rights ombudsman. Inevitably, it was due to race.
A UN committee charged with tackling racism has issued an “early warning” over conditions in the US and urged the Trump administration to “unequivocally and unconditionally” reject discrimination. The warning specifically refers to events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the civil rights activist Heather Heyer was killed when a car crashed into a group of people protesting against a white nationalist rally. Such statements are usually issued by the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination (Cerd) over fears of ethnic or religious conflict. In the past decade, the committee has only issued six warnings. Those admonishments went to Burundi, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Kyrgyzstan and Nigeria.
Civilisations are undone in many ways, not all of them obvious. We tend to think of decline along military or economic lines but it is actually a nation’s culture, particularly in terms of equality, that determines its civilisational credentials. America’s descent into what looks like a full on race crisis is graphically dragging it down the “development” scale. Reality is closing in on the country’s exceptionalist self-perception. But to be shocked by this is to have thought of the US as a superior civilisation in the first place.
Having picked the brief window in between Trump’s travel ban appeals – while the ban itself was still suspended pending a court decision – I managed to secure a visa to the US and travelled to the east and west coasts. Even among some Trump supporters, it was clear to me that there is a sense that America has been “outed”. There is a burgeoning self-awareness that the country is now tarred with the brush of intolerance as indelibly as Africa is with that of ethnic warfare.
Those countries that receive rebukes from the UN over human rights – as you can see from the list of those warned before the US – don’t tend to be ones that developed problems overnight. What the Trump era is graphically exposing is that America’s very public meltdown is an unravelling of issues that were suppressed, deflected or denied for many years. This didn’t all happen in the eight months since Trump became president. The pertinent fact here is that it took only eight months.
It took only eight months to go from a nation that voted for a black president two terms in a row to one that is suffering from race riots and killings, with officials having to send troops out on to the streets and declare a state of emergency. The speed with which it happened is the clue that it was in fact happening all along, unseen. And the fact that it was lying in wait is an indicator of how little racial equality is prized in the United States’ DNA.
There is a reason why ostensibly developed countries, once faced with adversity, a vacuum of authority or questionable leadership, tend to fall apart along the lines of race, LBGTQ and women’s rights. It is because in times of stability, when there is prosperity and rational leadership, the promotion and enshrining of the rights of the more vulnerable is cosmetic at best, undermined and papered over at worst. The foundations were there and continued to be laid even during Obama’s leadership.
It is no coincidence that the rights most easily dislodged and taken back – whether it is those of transgender members of the military or Muslim US citizens of certain origins – are those of minorities. Even in the UK, it is no coincidence that the first jubilant spasm after the Brexit vote was manifested in a rise in hate crime. It is no coincidence that making America great again, or taking back control, inevitably involves wanting to claw back whatever little space was ceded to diversity and equality. This reclamation lies at the very heart of the US and UK’s modern nation-building.
The UN cautioned that the Trump administration “should take the Cerd’s early warning very seriously and rescind its decision to eviscerate the mandates and budgets of US civil rights institutions; end its attempt to exclude white nationalism from the federal government’s Countering Violent Extremism programs; and end immigration and refugee policies based on anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiment.”
But even that will not be enough. The UN’s message is a good start in formulating the language and paradigm that sees discrimination not as an isolated phenomenon but fundamental to the infrastructure of the country, in the same way as the nation’s other inequalities. Race hate is not a temporary blip or hysteria that has come to pass because of a freak election or referendum. The only way forward is to remember that when the good are in power.