In January, members of the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent visited Washington D.C.; Baltimore; Jackson, Mississippi; Chicago; and New York City as part of its mission of assessing “the situation of African Americans and people of African descent.”
USDAC Cultural Agent Monique Davis was there in Jackson, testifying on issues of food injustice, and Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard had an opportunity afterwards to ask her about the experience. Before saying more about Monique’s testimony, here’s a little of the context for the UN visit.
As the Working Group’s report puts it, members “gathered information on the forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, Afrophobia and related intolerance that they face. We studied the official measures and mechanisms taken to prevent structural racial discrimination and protect victims of racism and hate crimes as well as responses to multiple forms of discrimination. The visit focused on both good practices and challenges faced in realising their human rights.”
After detailing the many positive developments (such as criminal justice reforms and improved healthcare programs) brought to the Working Group’s attention, the report goes on to preface an even longer list of concerns with this statement:
Despite the positive measures referred to above, the Working Group is extremely concerned about the human rights situation of African Americans.
The colonial history, the legacy of enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism, and racial inequality in the US remains a serious challenge as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent. Despite substantial changes since the end of the enforcement of Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights, ideology ensuring the domination of one group over another, continues to negatively impact the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of African Americans today. The dangerous ideology of white supremacy inhibits social cohesion amongst the US population. Lynching was a form of racial terrorism that has contributed to a legacy of racial inequality that the US must address. Thousands of people of African descent were killed in violent public acts of racial control and domination and the perpetrators were never held accountable.
Contemporary police killings and the trauma it creates are reminiscent of the racial terror lynching of the past. Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Arlene Goldbard: So the UN came to Jackson?
Monique Davis: We were one of five cities, and it was a huge honor for our small, sleepy southern town.
Arlene: You testified before the panel. What did you talk about?
Monique: I talked about my personal experiences of living in a poor community and shopping at a local grocery store, comparing that to my experience of shopping at that same grocery store chain in more affluent neighborhoods. How the quality and variety of produce is different, the lighting is different, even the background music is different, the cleanliness of the store is different. I talked about how our neighborhood is plagued by convenience food stores that don’t offer fresh produce. Many of our families are time-starved: they need something to be quick and easy. We may almost have to go to the drawing board again to teach people how to take advantage of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables because there’s generations of families that only know how to cook things that come out of a box and the impact on their health means mass re-education that needs to happen.
Arlene: Food is culture too, and what you’re describing is a food culture that puts the seller’s convenience and profit above the well-being of the families who consume the food. Here’s a quote from their report, which sounds like it was influenced by your testimony:
The Working Group learnt that African Americans have limited access to food variety including healthy food as they are concentrated in poor neighbourhoods with food outlets selling unhealthy and even expired food. African Americans have the highest rates of obesity which is linked to “food deserts”. Racial discrimination impedes the ability of Black women to maintain overall good health, control their sexuality and reproduction, survive pregnancy and child birth, and parent their children. Black women in the USA die from pregnancy-related complications at a rate three to four times higher than White women.
Did you hear any of the other testimonies?
Monique: There were powerful stories about mass incarceration. People spoke about a recent trial where a gentleman in Stonewall, Mississippi, was pulled off his horse and buggy and strangled by a police officer. (Note: Here’s a description of the killing of Jonathan Sanders.) People testified how under- and unreported that was because it was rural Mississippi. People spoke of the lack of prosecution of the people that are responsible and that fact that even though time has progressed, some things still haven’t changed as much as we would hope.
I was really impressed by the panel, I think they heard and honored the testimony and they even practiced some of the story circle principles we use—like after people shared just took a deep breath and said “thank you.” I was pleased that they gave people’s stories the honor and attention that they deserved. That was a great experience.
Arlene: It sounds like it. Just the fact of it happening is so interesting. You know how it is, the UN sends election observers to other countries and we feel very smug about our democracy. But in 2012, they sent election observers here. Now the UN is saying people of African descent in the United States are not well treated, as an international body, we have a responsibility to look into that. That recognition is powerful in and of itself.
Monique: Exactly. Just that they felt the need to come here is something kind of monumental.
The Working Group’s report ends with an impressive list of recommendations, the first of which is to “Establish a national human rights commission, in accordance with the Paris Principles. The Government should establish within this body a specific division to monitor the human rights of African Americans.” In a USDAC framework, what they are talking about is the right to culture, a fundamental and indivisible human right reflected in our Statement of Values. Many thanks to Monique for representing this truth to the UN.