Why the U.S. Must Go to the Race Conference

If President Obama is serious about advancing a positive vision of our nation as a partner in the world, he must go to the World Conference Against Racism.

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Underlying President Barack Obama’s historic election as the first African-American president of the United States remains a campaign promise to find new ways of re-engaging the world and to create a “new American leadership” for a “common humanity.”

In recent years, unilateral foreign policy endeavors and egregious human rights abuses have resulted in a dramatic decline of global goodwill toward—and deference to—the leadership of the United States. The Obama administration has already taken a number of steps to shift course and reclaim the country’s position on the side of human rights and democracy.

However, if President Obama is serious about advancing a positive vision of our nation as a partner in the world, it must continue to re-engage the global community on many levels and in spite of disagreements. For these reasons, U.S. participation and leadership in the World Conference Against Racism—officially dubbed the Durban Review Conference—in Geneva, Switzerland from April 20-24 is crucial.

Unfortunately, the U.S. and some of its allies recently declared that they would boycott the conference. Specifically, they opposed language in the conference’s draft document that was directed toward Israel in regard to the plight of the Palestinians. Responsive to state department protests and diplomatic overtures from the U.S. allies, much of this language has been removed. The point of the Durban Review Conference is not to generate retreat, but to challenge nations to find common threads for solutions even where contentions and discord threaten unanimity.

Reflecting on foreign policy in his inauguration speech, President Obama talked about his willingness to extend a hand and work with other nations. Members of the global community have reached out in preparation for the World Conference and the U.S. should respond accordingly.

Many global challenges, such as the economic crisis and the failing drug war, are far more complex than those faced in the past and cannot be contained within national borders. Nor can persistent exclusion and marginalization along racial and ethnic lines. Human trafficking, bias-motivated violence, racial profiling, religious intolerance and the social exclusion and persecution of immigrants are increasingly becoming global issues that require a concerted international response.

A year ago in Philadelphia, then-candidate Obama said that “race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” Although his election illustrates the tremendous strides we have taken, the president reminded us of “the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through—a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.” These complexities, which “minoritize” communities of color and distribute opportunities unequally at home, are no less present in the international community and need to be addressed on both local and global levels.

Considering this reality, it is in our national interest for the administration to officially participate in the Durban Review Conference to engage the fight for racial justice in good faith. In an increasingly interdependent world, the United States cannot responsibly continue to isolate itself. Boycotting the conference would perpetuate the stance of the former administration and compromise the integrity and influence of our nation in the international community.

As Obama reminded the American people a year ago, “If we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve” the challenges that face us all.

John A. Powell is executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University.

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