Forfeit on the Race Conference

The U.S. isn't post-racial—but neither is anyone else! Why Obama should have taken that message to Geneva.

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The United Nations World Conference Against Racism begins today in Geneva, Switzerland—without the Obama administration in attendance. The United States decided on Saturday to boycott the conference, just as the Bush administration did in 2001, when it was held in Durban, South Africa, amid a firestorm of controversy surrounding elements of the conference charter viewed to be anti-Semitic. The White House warned months ago that it would not attend this year’s gathering, a review of the Durban conference, if similar language critiquing Israel was not revised. Conference planners tailored the language, but apparently not enough to appease the U.S. delegation. (Canada, Israel, Italy and Australia are also boycotting.) President Obama said Sunday: “Our participation would have involved putting our imprimatur on something that we just don't believe.”

Countless commentators in America and abroad have criticized the president for not attending. Black politicians have been especially disapproving. The Congressional Black Caucus released a statement saying it was “deeply dismayed by the decision to boycott.” Jesse Jackson warned last week, before the boycott was announced, that refusing to attend would send a negative message. “Nations are watching your administration,” he said. Nicole Lee, president of the TransAfrica Forum, which promotes a Diasporic focus on foreign policy, said that Obama’s decision to stay away from Geneva bode poorly for race-driven conflicts in the United States: “If he won’t go to this conference, what is he going to do about the next Jena Six?” she said in an interview with The Root.

The suggestion behind the criticism, of course, is that America’s absence makes the country appear backward on race—an ironic and unfortunate message, especially in the year after Obama’s historic presidential victory. But to shake a finger at the United States for being backward is itself backward. The very reason the United States should have attended is because it is doing a comparatively stellar job when it comes to race-neutral public policy.

Whoa, there, I hear you yell back—have you taken a look at the U.S. prison industrial complex? Yes, it comprises a quarter of the world’s population and, oh boy, is it black. Between the health care and sentencing disparities, predatory loans, police brutality and simple taxicab travails that complicate black American life, it’s hard to make a claim that the U.S. is post-racial.

But that doesn’t mean the U.S. is not post-everyone else.

Consider the company in Geneva: France, Germany, Ireland, Argentina, even South Africa—host of the 2001 affair. Most of these countries maintain an ethnic nationalist identity that, for centuries in some cases, has been able to escape the tangle of racial tensions at play when races collide. The U.S. first met these challenges during the great migration of the 1930s, and again in the 1960s when cities went from white to brown. But Argentina, for example, has long prided itself on being South America’s “whitest” nation, and South Africa—despite its fraught racial history and the supposed ongoing reconciliation process—has been hit with a nasty strain of xenophobia regarding black African refugees from the rest of southern Africa. Zimbabweans fleeing Robert Mugabe’s brutalism, for example, increasingly live in dusty camps at the outskirts of South African cities without shelter or clean water.

The difficulty in assimilating immigrants stretches to the northernmost reaches in the European Union, to nations like Ireland, Denmark and Sweden trying desperately to grapple with the tensions caused by immigration from countries in Africa and the Middle East. And it’s hard to characterize the public foot-shuffling on Turkish accession to the EU as anything but plain old ethnic and cultural protectionism—in public pronouncements by leaders, often with a racist bent.

In the global business community as well, a casual white male ascendancy has taken root. Among the European Fortune 500 companies, there are scarcely any minority executives, and in east and southeast Asia, the same ethnically protectionist culture exists. Minority politicians in Europe, such as Rachida Dati in France, Mariam Osman Sherifay in Sweden, and Paul Boateng in the U.K., are few and far between. This is not to say any of these nations harbor latent or overtly racist people; merely that a country like Switzerland maintains its racial homogeneity as it does its diplomatic neutrality—not by accident. More open borders and humane immigration and affirmative action policy in these nations would do a lot more to combat racism worldwide than a war of words over the Geneva conference charter.

So the problems are larger than those manifested every day in America. And they are larger than the shadow of anti-Semitism that has been cast over the conference.

Yes, home does not boast the greatest record on race relations—one need only look at the wave of racially tinged rhetoric and associations that littered Obama’s path to the White House. But, as the president said before departing Trinidad and Tobago this weekend, “if you come down to Central and South America and the Caribbean, they have all kinds of stories to tell about racial discrimination.” The U.S. is still freer, fairer and more open to the discussion of race than just about any nation in the world. Could a top cop in any of the participating nations have delivered a frank speech on race like the one Attorney General Eric Holder made in February?

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