Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Challenging a Climate of Hate - As the Federal Government Steps Back, State and Local Governments Must Step In

 JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Lecturer in Law, Columbia Law School & Director, Human Rights in the U.S. Project, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute

 This past weekend’s 2018 Unite the Right rally marked one year from the death of Heather Heyer, and serves as an important national reminder that hate, bias, and discrimination are on the rise.

 This year’s rally drew far fewer participants than last year, meaning fewer messengers of racism and hatred.  Opponents of hate, including organizers from around the country, were there in numbers that dwarfed rally attendees, highlighting a vigilant rejection of public demonstrations of hate.  This is critical because we know that hateful rhetoric is deeply connected to increased hate violence and racially motivated intimidation.

 The violence that took place in Charlottesville last year drew global attention.  The UN CERD Committee weighed in, calling on the United States to take action to “address the root causes of the proliferation of such racist manifestations,” and promote understanding, tolerance, and diversity between ethnic groups.”  In domestic circles, President Trump was also much maligned for his failure to immediately condemn the violence or to show leadership amidst the racial turmoil.  This year, the President again failed to condemn the actions or messages of white supremacists.

One year after Charlottesville, the current administration continues to fan the flames of the hate.  Trumps’ rhetoric is infused with racism and discrimination – not surprising, as he has derided African Americans and expressed deep anti-semitism for the entirety of his professional career.  His Administration’s policies have put racism, as well as anti-immigrant and anti-muslim sentiment into practice.  The travel bans and efforts to separate immigrant children from their families are just two of the most egregious examples. 

Less attention has been paid to how the Administration is dismantling programs designed with the express purpose of preventing bias, discrimination, and hate.  The Trump budget proposal for 2019 effectively eliminates the DOJ Community Relations Service, which was created by the 1964 Civil Rights Act to do just that.  CRS does not prosecute or investigate acts of hate, it is focused on affirmative efforts to build community and tolerance, and combat discrimination.  As civil rights groups have noted, the loss of CRS will negatively impact communities most vulnerable to hate crimes and bias.  The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights criticized the cuts, highlighting how they “reduce the federal role even in serving as a critical backstop against harm to vulnerable Americans.”

Eliminating racial discrimination, preventing acts of hate, bias, and discrimination, and promoting tolerance are GOVERNMENT obligations.  These are obligations the United States has formally committed to by ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination in 1994, and which the current administration has chosen to ignore.  While the U.S. was due to report on its CERD compliance last year, the Trump Administration has obstructed further scrutiny of its human rights record by ignoring even its basic obligation to produce a report for review by UN experts.

 As the federal government flouts its human rights obligations, it is imperative that states and localities step in to respond to the climate of hate, bias, and intimidation unfolding across the United States.  Indeed, human rights obligations apply not only to the federal government, but to states and localities as well.

The CERD Committee has offered significant guidance on ways that the United States can make good on its human rights commitments and address the persistence of discriminatory attitudes and outcomes through law and policy reform.  The Committee has called on the United States to strengthen and expand existing mechanisms to monitor human rights at the federal, state, and local levels.  The CERD has also emphasized the importance of awareness-raising, and the collection of disaggregated data collection in order to generate greater understanding of the impacts of discrimination and generate more effective solutions.

State and local human rights agencies, many of which were initially established in the 1940s to specifically address racial tensions and promote equal opportunity, and whose primary functions are to monitor and enforce compliance with domestic anti-discrimination laws, are uniquely well-placed to heed the guidance from CERD and provide a positive counterweight to federal inaction on bias, discrimination, and hate.   

We see this from New York City Human Rights Commission, which launched an #IAmMuslim Campaign. And in Seattle, where the Seattle Office for Civil Rights that developed a city-wide “Bias Hurts” campaign.  These initiatives track discrimination, bring communities together to prevent escalation, and foster tolerance. 

Across the country, local human rights commissions serve an array of functions that align with human rights norms. They prevent discrimination, enforce civil anti-discrimination law, make policy recommendations, and foster positive community relations.  They are also already interlocutors on the global human rights stage, and they have increasingly integrated international human rights standards into their work.  Later this month, state and local human rights agencies will meet with the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Tendayi Achiume at their annual conference.

With adequate resources and support, state and local agencies can leverage core human rights principles to challenge the current climate of fear and hate.  They can use CERD as guidance in policy work, to conduct community outreach, and to enhance local data collection efforts, building on their strong history of strengthening civil and human rights protections. 

The recommendations found here are detailed further in a recent article, Challenging a Climate of Hate and Fostering Inclusion:  The Role of U.S. State and Local Human Rights Commissions.  The article is part of an entire issue of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review dedicated to innovations and challenges in state and local human rights implementation.  The Issue includes pieces on struggles to advances access to sanitation in Alabama; developments in localizing the Sustainable Development Goals in US cities; design challenges in implementing human rights at the city level, and lessons learned from complementary efforts to advance human rights locally in Europe.  The issue also features insights from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.  As many advocates pivot to state and local advocacy, it’s a timely read.

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