U.N. Official: Mixed Racism Picture in U.S.

Barack Obama's presidential candidacy is evidence that the United States has made significant strides in race relations, according to Doudou Diene, a U.N. official who reports on contemporary forms of racism. But Diene tells Scott Simon that the resegregation of American cities and the poor state of public education remain key areas of concern.


Doudou Diene joins us in our studios. Mr. Diene is the United Nations special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance. He's making a second visit to the United States while preparing a report. With the permission of the U.S. government, he has visited Miami, Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, Omaha, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

And to anticipate a line of questioning, the United States is just one of 25 countries that Mr. Diene has toured, including Russia, Brazil, Canada, Nicaragua, and Japan. He'll report his findings next year. Mr. Diene is a Senegalese attorney. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. DOUDOU DIENE, (Special Rapporteur, United Nations): Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: A lot of Americans think this is a pretty significant week in our history with Senator Obama's nomination. What's your reaction?

Mr. DIENE: There is no doubt that the Obama candidature and the level it has reached is an indication that something deep is happening in the American society. The fact that an African-American has been chosen by states where the African-American community is very small - do mean something certainly profound.

SIMON: Like what?

Mr. DIENE: It is, I think, a sign that - because in my work as a reporter, since it is 6 years now, and indeed, in my 30 years work at UNESCO to work on inter-religious and intercultural contact and dialogue, I know that whenever racism has been deeply routed in any given society, whenever racism has been lasting, the combat again to racism is certainly a political combat and a collective combat. But it is also an individual combat.

What I mean by that is certainly the need to face racism has been inhabiting each American consciousness. And certainly, there is no doubt that this internal work has led to some very deep process of transformation, which now may be being seen throughout this candidature.

SIMON: What's some of what you've noticed in the U.S. over the pass few weeks?

Mr. DIENE: I have noticed three things positive, and there's negatives. The positive fact is that I have noticed, confirmed - because I live in the U.S. for 10 years - is the fact that the U.S. society is confronting racism. There is also no doubt that the issue of representation and the participation of minorities, which is one of the key parts of combating racism, the U.S. is making progress. Thirdly, the United States has devised a strong legal basis to combat racism by adapting certain types of laws and a mechanism for victims.

But there are also negative aspects. One, the fact is that most of the great urban cities are ethnically divided. You have areas for white, as does African-American, Latino, etcetera. Combating racism is not only eliminating discrimination. Ultimate aim of fighting racism is promoting living together. Secondly, the public education system not only has been weakened, abandoned, but it has also led to what some of the juvenile (unintelligible) managers are using the concept from school to prison pipeline. Now, another critical point I made, two institutions emerge very negatively perceived by communities and victims, police and the justice system.

SIMON: This week, are Americans entitled to sometimes mark the progress this country has made?

Mr. DIENE: Oh, yes. Definitely. And I do think that the Obama factor is now being assessed by everybody. Outside the U.S., for example in Europe, where the societies are multicultural, people are intensively following what is happening here. Leaders in Europe certainly are asking themselves what their policies have been in giving visibility to minorities as the process has been going on in the United States. So it is extraordinary moment.

SIMON: Doudou Diene, United Nations special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance.

Mr. DIENE: Thank you very much. God bless you.

SIMON: Thank you very much.

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