U.S. Racial Discrimination Must Be Remedied, UN Says Post-Katrina Housing Rights Violations Also Cited

Louisiana Weekly (New Orleans), March 10, 2008

On Friday, March 7, in Geneva, Switzerland, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued its Concluding Observations charging the U.S. to do more to remedy the effects of racial discrimination in housing and other areas.

The Observations came after the formal review of the U.S.’s report to the Committee under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. This is a required procedure for all signatories to the treaty, which the U.S. ratified in 1994.

During the oral review, Committee member Dilip Lahiri of India recalled, “When I was in Chicago, a journalist who visited then-apartheid South Africa came back and said, ‘You don’t need the South African laws to achieve the [same] segregation, the discrimination in the United States.’ Residential segregation . . . is a persistent factor and while programs have been undertaken, it is obvious that there is a problem and some sort of a vigorous proactive action needs to be taken to show some progress on the ground.”

As an example of “proactive action” the Committee cited the California Housing Element Law, which requires cities and counties to plan affordable housing for all income levels of society, rather than just building luxury condos and McMansions. A recent amendment to the law requires counties to provide at least one zoning jurisdiction where homeless shelters can be located by right, ensuring that “Not-In-My-Back-Yard” opposition does not prevent these most critical housing needs from being met.

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The Committee’s Observations echo the comments of another treaty review body, the Human Rights Commission, which in 2006 reviewed the U.S. for compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the U.S. ratified in 1992. That committee noted its concern that while African Americans constitute just 12% of the population, they represent 50 percent of homeless people, and the government is required to take “adequate and adequately implemented” measures to remedy this human rights violation.

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The Committee also criticized the discriminatory violations of housing rights of African Americans following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. This comes on the heels of a call from two UN experts on housing and minority rights two weeks ago for an immediate halt to the demolitions of public housing in New Orleans. These demolitions, along with other reconstruction policies, are preventing African Americans from returning to the city. The Committee calls for adequate, affordable housing in Katrina-affected areas, and also for the remedying of housing conditions in racially segregated areas across the country.

“The current situation points to a fundamental lack of respect for the rights and needs of poor and minority Americans,” said Eric Tars, Human Rights Staff Attorney at NLCHP, who participated in briefings with the Committee and the U.S. government delegation. “We are pushing for a new vision, grounded in the American belief of equal opportunity, that guarantees us all our basic human rights.”

“By signing this treaty, the U.S. committed to overcoming the history of discrimination in this country,” Tars continued. “But rather than adequately funding housing programs which are proven to get people off the streets and back into productive society, cities, states, and the federal government all continue to try to sweep the problem under the rug. Today, the Committee gave us some clear steps we need to take to do a better job, and we intend to hold the government accountable for its obligations.”

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