UN Fact-Finding Mission to Investigate Racial Discrimination in the United States
Kali Akuno, co-director of Cooperation Jackson, says it will give greater exposure to the realities of African Americans and put the US government and the state of Mississippi on notice
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER,TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
In 2014, the United Nations declared this decade as the International Decade for People of African Descent. The UN Human Rights Council has established a Working Group of Experts on people of African descent. The working group is mandated to carry out a factfinding visit to the United States, and they will be traveling to Washington, DC, Baltimore, Jackson, Mississippi, and New York City in the coming days, and they plan to gather firsthand information about the current human rights situation of African-Americans and follow up on recommendations that they may have to fight racism. The panel of experts is headed by Mireille Fanon-Mendes France. She’s the daughter of Frantz Fanon, the revolutionary philosopher, and the author of many books, among them The Wretched of the Earth, Black Skin, White Mask.
So to discuss the work of this working group headed to the United States I’m joined by Kali Akuno, and he’s a co-director of Cooperation Jackson, and one of the authors of the Jackson plan. Kali, so good to have you with us again.
KALI AKUNO: Pleasure to be here.
PERIES: Kali, so the United Nations Working Group of Experts on their way to the U.S. and to your city this evening is going to examine the racism and the situation of African-Americans in this country, but in Jackson in particular. Give us a sense of what they’re going to find in Jackson.
AKUNO: Well, they’re going to find a city which is deeply impoverished, systemically neglected, and really in a deep sense of conflict and turmoil. Jackson is currently under some considerable threat by the largely white congressional, state congressional power structure in the state, which is as we speak trying to strip Jackson of control over its airport, which is something that just got initiated the last several days. And also to remove all control over our water situation.
They’re going to find a city in which the average income is well under–family income is well under $35,000. Unemployment for black folks is well in the range of 30, 40, maybe even 50 percent in real time and in real terms and conditions. And they’re going to find overall in Mississippi the conditions either where the black folks in particular make–the circumstances that we face make Mississippi typically the poorest and the unhealthiest state in the so-called Union.
So this is what they’re going to find. We are putting together testimony from folks who have experienced a broad range of human rights abuses, from police brutality to extrajudicial killing, to false prosecution, to different forms of prison slave labor, to wretched housing conditions, to discriminatory housing practices, to environmental racism. These are all the different things that they will hear firsthand from those who have suffered through these conditions at the, both from private industry hands in the case of, like the Nissan workers who will be testifying, but also at the hands of the Mississippi state government and some of its municipalities and other offices.
PERIES: This is not the first time the United Nations has made such a trip to the United States. There’s been inquiries over incarceration. There’s been inquiries, I think there was a trip to Detroit not too long ago to examine the conditions there. What comes out of these kinds of reports and factfinding missions?
AKUNO: The main thing, truth be told, that comes out of this is more exposure, more highlighting of our issues, and to give our issues kind of international standing and international play, which various forces within the United Nations system, be it a kind of working group such as this one or special rapporteurs, or even some of the, the member states can then use to pressure the United States government, and its various kind of divisions, to be more responsible in fulfilling their obligation towards human rights.
So that’s one dimension of what kind of comes out of this, in terms of broader exposure. What I always like to focus on is what grassroots forces on the ground can do with these visits, and that is to really interject and to give audience to our concerns and our issues, to put the United States government on notice, because we are often at so much of a disadvantage and an unequal relationship of power that speaking our voice and trying to gain an audience with the very state that’s oppressing us is often very limited, are mute or suppressed. So this kind of gives us some democratic space to raise our issue, in that we give our struggle a certain aspect of legitimacy, both internally within our own communities within the U.S. media and internationally, which is then up to us, as I think is [organizers] to use strategically to advance our aims and objectives.
PERIES: Now, let’s say that this working group declares that the conditions for African-Americans in this country and Mississippi in particular is appalling when it comes to poverty, discrimination, all the human rights covenants and honoring its conventions of the United Nations. How would you be able to take that information and apply it in a place like Mississippi specifically in advancing and improving the conditions of ordinary people?
AKUNO: Well, we’re going to here in Mississippi, I mean, we’re going to use it as as much of a sledgehammer as we possibly can to fight for some constitutional change here in the state. You know, just recently we had a campaign to change the state constitution to fully fund public education in the state of Mississippi, which, as many of your viewers will probably find now to be very shocked, that that’s not the case here in the state. But Mississippi and a lot of the Southern states have a number of different mechanisms, ways by which they keep the system unequal and very segregated.
So we are going to use the information there to do a broader level of education in the state to give people more empowerment, and to build allies. You know, because one of the critical things in that case was that we really were unable to move a significant portion of the white community to come around to understanding that that change would not only have benefited the black community significantly, it would have benefited all communities.
So we have to take this hard evidence and use it to further our organizing objectives towards building power here in the state of Mississippi, and that’s what we definitely intend to do.
PERIES: Kali, how does a report like this, assuming that it’s going to say all the things we want it to say in terms of the inequality of African-Americans, racial discrimination, racism, and systemic racism, how will a report like this be used at the United Nations in order for the UN to be able to flex its muscles in terms of getting the U.S. government to comply with its recommendations?
AKUNO: Well, here’s one way that we hope that it will be utilized, and that we want to push to be utilized in this manner. We are really trying to make on the international level, as well as a local and a national level, a strong, pressing case for reparations. Following the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, the recommendations, they came up with that some 15 years ago.
And what we’re hoping is that the CARICOM nations which have been demanding reparations and waging their fight in the international community and through the United Nations, that they will pick up this charge and pick up this report and its evidence to further press their case, and to build solid allies with the African group, and ultimately with the group of G77 or the Non-aligned Movement to then press to United States and ultimately the European Union along with it to make some recommendations towards promoting and implementing a program of reparations on an international scale. And we would definitely be demanding that. It’s kind of a major Marshall-like plan of rebuilding our communities, particularly here in the South and black urban communities throughout the country.
So there are some very strategic ways in which we can and we are going to advocate this report be used. And we’re definitely trying to make sure that with this, this report is able to support the International Decade of People of African Descent and make that decade one which is advancing the cause of reparations and other forms of development, to alleviate the poverty, suffering, and oppression experienced by people of African descent not only in the United States but throughout the world.
PERIES: Now, Kali, one of the challenges in dealing with the UN is, you know, it is a large institution, has many arms. And you were just recently in Paris at the climate change conference, and getting that agreement into shape. And you were there on behalf of the decade of African descendancy and trying to advocate an integrated way of looking at climate change. How sucessful was your efforts there?
AKUNO: Good question, Sharmini. I mean, I think it’s, unfortunately it’s probably too early to tell. You know, one of the things that came out of, I think, of not just our efforts but a broad international coordinated campaign that was demanding the 1.5 degree global warming limit, that we limit the change that is coming, because it’s already in motion, that we take the necessary steps on a global scale to only heat up the world, or allow the world to be heating up to 1.5 degrees [inaud.] a pre-industrial level.
So you know, we were able, I think, the social movement in combination with the African group, with the small island nations of the Pacific, and the Caribbean, we were able to kind of, I think, push that through. So it’s now inserted in the text. But the challenge is the way in particular President Obama and the United States government really steered this process in order to kind of come up with this historical agreement. They steered it in such a way that the only thing that came out of it are voluntary commitments. So there’s no legally binding obligation that the nation-states have to adhere to. It’s all strictly voluntary.
So I think our, our efforts were successful in changing the language, but we still have a great deal of work to do towards having an integrated approach on how all the different things related to the development goes of ending poverty, of dealing with migrant and refugee issues, of dealing with the particular plight of people of African descent and their struggle against racism on an international level. How that’s really integrated into a broad dynamic of transforming the overall world economy to make sure that we don’t self-destruct and kill ourselves. We got a long way to go to get to that point.
I think our efforts did a great deal of making the case that these different things have to be integrated. I think that was heard. But we have to do, I think, more work now on the grassroots level here in the United States and throughout the world to build the strength and build the alternatives that are necessary to really allow us to survive and deal with the calamity that are likely coming giving how the process of global warming is being managed.
PERIES: Kali, I know you have been one of the architects of the Jackson Plan that takes some of these issues into consideration and locally is trying to implement it, an integrated approach to the development of a city like Jackson, and we would love to unpack that with you sometime. And I hope you can join us for that.
AKUNO: Looking forward to it.
PERIES: Kali, thank you so much for joining us today.
AKUNO: Thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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