ACLU report: Racism 'swept under the rug'

Lindsey Parietti

The United States is doing little to comply with an international agreement to end racial discrimination and has downplayed widespread racism, charged an American Civil Liberties Union report released Monday.

In 1994, the United States signed a United Nations treaty to end all forms of racial discrimination.

But according to the ACLU, when the United States updated the international community on its progress in April, it "swept under the rug" problems such as racial profiling, the disproportionate incarceration of minorities, and civil rights violations against immigrants.

Vera Dias-Freitas, a Framingham businesswoman who has lived in Massachusetts for 19 years, said that despite being an American citizen she has faced more discrimination and anti-immigrant sentiment in recent years.

"There are kids being beat up in school, storefronts being thrown stones at, things that didn't happen before," she said, attributing the change to increased media and public focus on illegal immigration.

"At a certain point they will have to accept us because they are on the wrong side of the equation ... we are just trying to live our lives."

Local and state governments are not doing enough to eradicate racism where it has been identified, said a panel of ACLU staff members and minority rights advocates at a State House press conference yesterday.

Among the examples of inaction cited by the report was a 2000 Massachusetts law, which found that 249 of 341 local police departments showed racial disparities in traffic stops, but allowed the departments to stop reporting disparities after one year.

"You tend to think you're addressing the issues as necessary, but we can do a better job (enforcing) anti-discrimination laws," said state Rep. Peter Koutoujian, D-Waltham, who serves on a legislative commission to end racial health disparities in Massachusetts.

Koutoujian said the commission has impressed him with the effect of discrimination on health, stress, and every aspect of life.

"Racism is far more than individual racial prejudice - racism is cultural and structural ... institutional discrimination against people of color by people we call white," state Rep. Byron Rushing, D-Boston, said at the press conference.

Rushing said that Massachusetts is not exempt from the ACLU's criticism, pointing to the lawsuit that a black ACLU employee won last week after being unfairly detained at Logan Airport because of his appearance.

A federal jury ruled that state police had unlawfully stopped King Downing, coordinator of the ACLU campaign against racial profiling, without reasonable suspicion. The jury did not award Downing any damages.

"For many Americans, human rights violations are about what happens over there, in some remote corner of Africa called Darfur, perhaps, or in an Iraq prison cell ... respect for universal human rights begins at home," said Steven Watt, one of the ACLU report's authors at the press conference.

Watt said the information that the U.S. State Department submitted to the United Nations in April was replete with inaccuracies.

Yet the U.S. report discusses many of the same problems identified by the ACLU: bias against people of Arab and South Asian descent, subtle and overt discrimination against minorities, and disparities in education and achievement, among others.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson said she had not seen the ACLU report, but that "the Department of State has taken a firm stance on human rights over the years both at home and abroad."

MetroWest Daily News staff writer Lindsey Parietti can be reached at lindsey.parietti@cnc.com.