"The positive fact is that I have noticed, confirmedÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ the fact that the U.S. society is confronting racism."
It's a statement that raised my brow. But that is what Doudou Diene, the United Nations special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia told NPRÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Weekend Edition host, Scott Simon on Sunday.
Diene, charged with preparing a report on the state of racism in the US, Brazil, Japan, Russia, Canada and twenty other countries, cited the Democratic nomination of Senator Barak Obama, a black man, as sign that people in the US are finally doing the "internal work" needed to fight racism. He called it "a deep process of transformation." And so it finally begins, I thought. Here is more fodder for pundits who consistently sweep racism under the rug. "Even the UN has declared that we are beyond race," theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll shout from mountaintops. What they ignore is that there is little evidence of this transformation leading to better living conditions for communities of color. But Diene doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t stop there.
There is some bad news as well. The US is still racially segregated, says Diene; we have abandoned our schools (which directs children of color to a prison pipeline), but this is not news. This was the case six years ago, when the UN held a World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. In ARCÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s CERD Report on Race and Education, we stated then that, "What concerns the nationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s almost 17 million students of color and their communities is that, regardless of anyone's intent, they receive an inferior education."
The nation's housing woes aren't new either. As we approach the 40th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, we witness the travesty of HUD displacing people from their homes in New Orleans, record foreclosure rates in Latino and Black communities, and rampant gentrification is evident in nearly every major city across the nation. And, that the judicial system is anything but just is old news to people of color. Ten years after the racist murder of James Bryd, we can add Sean Bell and the plight of Jena Six to the list of reasons why communities distrust our judicial system.
Are we confronting racism in the US? Well, there is a lot of talk about people dealing with their personal race demons. And maybe that is the place start, but we certainly canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t afford to stop there. The Obama candidacy should be seen as a foot in the door to these discussions but only if we move them beyond the skin color of the man to the racial impact of policies that he and others promote. Until we can raise the discussion to the level of dealing systemic inequity, we are in great danger of navel gazing and getting nowhere fast.
They are coming for us. The Big Man up top says, "We need to go into the community and get to know people's names...We need to walk into homes, neighborhoods, places or worship and businesses." They call us a community at-risk and say that they need to moderate radicalization of our brothers, our sisters, uncle Cleaver and even cousin Mae. They are coming for us and we need to be ready.
I'm not crying Chicken Little here. It was all over the Los Angeles Times and New York Times this morning. The Los Angeles Police Department has created a mapping project to identify so-called "Islamic extremists" in area Muslim communities. As a result entire communities have been branded as "at-risk" and are being placed under surveillance. "We want to know where the Pakistanis, Iranians and Chechens are so we can reach out to them," says LA Deputy Chief Michael P. Downing.
Whether you call it a 21st century COINTELPRO or the next evolution of racial profiling, this is nothing short of government-sanctioned racism. We must speak up and say that it's wrong and demand that it stop immediately. Today it's the Los Angeles Muslim community. Tomorrow it will be Black and African college students protesting against the genocide in Darfur. And the next day it will be baggy-jean-and-white-shirt wearing Cambodian high schoolers tagged as gang members. They are coming for us right now and we have to do something.
Myths about the Patriot Act and how it affects the black community are downright deadly. A potent myth is that the Patriot Act only affects a tiny number of Arabs and Muslims who were rounded up immediately after Sept. 11. Some lament that immigrants are grabbing attention away from the problems of civil rights abuses and police violence against blacks. In reality, however, the Patriot Act is not a shift, but a dangerous extension of unjust policies and practices that put all people of color in jeopardy, even blacks.
We are not talking about a handful of highly scrutinized suspects here, but whole communities that have been victimized in the name of "national security." Eighty-two thousand men from 24 Muslim countries were required to register with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some 13,000 were detained and face deportation for minor or technical violations, such as failure to report a change of address.
Thousands more have become targets of hate crimes, fired from their jobs, interrogated by the FBI without a lawyer present, and jailed or deported due to INS bureaucratic snafus. Blacks know that you don't have to be a "foreigner" to be labeled an enemy of the state. So laws that imprison individuals without stating a clear charge or providing access to an attorney send up red flags.
Lost in this debate is the plight of black immigrants, who also suffer from unjustified detention and deportation. For example, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft used the "national security" rationale to justify the indefinite detention of Haitian immigrants seeking asylum. His order had nothing to do with whether the immigrants themselves are dangerous. Ashcoft's twisted logic is that detaining Haitians would discourage others from coming to America, thus preventing the diversion of Coast Guard resources from homeland security initiatives.
When I step a bit closer to the situation, as a black woman I am alarmed to see familiar abuses taken to a whole new level. The story of Abraham, a Sudanese refugee in San Jose, California illustrates the chilling link between the Patriot Act and racial profiling as we know it. Ironically, he was on the way to the INS office to collect papers that would prove to his employer that he was in the country legally, when he was stopped for driving while black. Facing the barrel of drawn police guns, he realized, "they thought I was Black American." Police did not give Abraham a ticket for speeding, but extensively questioned him about his immigration status.
Most important, the atmosphere in which the government has expanded its powers makes cops even bolder about racial profiling. Kenny Dukes, a young African American man was killed by Chicago police officers in August. Dukes had returned home from a picnic with his girlfriend and was walking to the front door when the officers yelled at him to stop. Not realizing that they were calling him, he continued walking with his back to the street. Although there was no warrant for his arrest and Dukes was not carrying a weapon, they shot him seven times in the back.
The good news is that communities across the country are exploding myths around the Patriot Acts and making these connections. At public hearings in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, San Jose and Alameda, California, immigrant and black leaders are standing together to take on government-sanctioned racial profiling.
This is not a new struggle. The black community knows that the same racist fervor that inspired the recent shootings of Sikh cab drivers in Richmond, California also led to the dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. The system that proposed asking people to turn in their neighbors using vague definitions of a "suspect" though the TIPS program (Terrorist Information Prevention System), is the same one that targeted African American leaders through COINTELPRO. The targeting of whole communities through the Patriot Act is not just an "Arab thing" or a "Muslim thing." It's also a "black thing."
Tammy Johnson is director of the Race and Public Policy Program at the Applied Research Center.