The U.S. Human Rights Network has a good summary of the weaknesses in U.S. civil rights laws and civil rights enforcement. In 1965 the United Nations adopted an antidiscrimination treaty called the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The U.S. Senate took until 1994 to ratify it largely because of white conservative opposition to it. We have only ratified three international human rights treaties, which are binding on U.S. states and the federal government.
We as a nation are way behind in our law and Supreme Court interpretations of CERD. Here are two excerpts from this critical analysis (The document is at the Poverty and Race Research Action Council website; look for the June 23 weekly update. It is well worth joining their list too):
The CERD treaty embodies an obligation not just to avoid policies with a discriminatory impact, but also to affirmatively take action to address racial disparities in outcomes for people of color, both within government programs and in society at large. This principle of affirmative obligations to redress past discriminatory practices and present day outcomes is largely absent from federal civil rights law (with the notable exception of the Fair Housing Act, which calls on the government to “affirmatively further” fair housing. The CERD treaty requires its signatories to use carefully tailored race-conscious measures to redress past racial discrimination and continuing racial disparities. But the U.S. Supreme Court has recently been undermining this basic principle of our civil rights law by making it harder for government to use race as a factor in student assignment to promote voluntary racial integration. The CERD Committee has recommended a government-wide “Plan of Action” to implement CERD, and a central agency or commission to educate the public and monitor treaty compliance. No such mechanisms exist in the U.S.
Civil rights enforcement vs. human rights compliance: the Obama Administration has done a good job of reviving the dormant civil rights enforcement units within each federal agency that are responsible for investigating complaints of discrimination by state and local recipients of federal funds, and the revived Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is once again at the forefront of civil rights enforcement. But civil rights enforcement is only a part of compliance with the CERD treaty – the federal government is also supposed to be addressing racial disparities and impacts in the way it spends its money and runs its domestic programs (including federal programs affecting health, education, labor, environment, criminal justice, housing, transportation, etc). The federal government is still falling short of its CERD obligations in this area.
That is the U.S. is out of compliance with a major treaty, and indeed in several ways fairly weak in its civil rights enforcement and action on racial and other discrimination.