By DeWayne Wickham
When it comes to the world conference on racism, the Obama administration is reluctant to accept “yes” for an answer.
In February, the White House threatened to pull out of the United Nation’s sponsored meeting after failing to get changes to its draft declaration. That document, a State Department official said, was “unsalvageable” because it unfairly singled out Israel for criticism and sought to limit criticism of religion.
“We have repeatedly shared with a wide range of countries our hopes for a document that might yet emerge that treats the issues of racism and discrimination, which we care deeply about, in a serious and constructive manner and doesn’t get sidetracked with hostile criticism of any individual country or conflict,” UN ambassador Susan Rice told me last week.
This position pleased Jewish activists who publicly pushed Obama to boycott the April conference in Geneva. Complaining that it was hopelessly anti-Semitic, the Bush administration walked out of the 2001 racism conference. But many black activists said privately that Obama was allowing this issue to scuttle U.S. participation in a meeting that could have far reaching impact for blacks.
In recent days, the two groups appeared headed towards an ugly clash over this issue. But a day after I talked with Rice, organizers of the racism conference announced changes to the draft document that appeared to satisfy U.S. concerns. All references to Israel and “defamation of religion” were eliminated.
Still, the Obama administration has been slow to react.
“This is shocking that the language has been changed to reflect the U.S. concern ad yet the decision not to attend hasn’t changed,” said Nicole Lee, executive director of TransAfrica Forum, a Washington-based that promotes the interest of people of African descent around the world.
Pointing to the historical significance of Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president, Lee said: “We really are in a unique position to show leadership” on the issue of worldwide racism, “but we can’t lead if we don’t show up.”
Now there’s a new sticking point. The amended document endorses the 2001 racism conference report, though none of the language critical of Israel is included in the compromise.
“We welcome the real progress made in the revised text and appreciate the efforts of the UN leadership and many delegates to negotiate a much improved draft…We are reviewing the revised text carefully and considering our next step,” Rice said in a statement the White House gave me Sunday.
Ironically, the Obama administration’s intransigence allows other countries, which don’t want any focus on racism within their borders, to hide behind its objection the racism conference.
The 27 members of the European Union have joined the United States in threatening to boycott the April 20 – 25 meeting. This year is the 125th anniversary of the beginning of the Berlin Conference, in which European nations divided up Africa like stolen money among thieves. The ripple effects of that action deserves special scrutiny. So does the treatment of indigenous people in places like Canada and Australia.
But that’s not likely to happen in any serious way if the United States, which once practiced one of the most virulent forms of apartheid – and now has elected a black president – won’t attend the racism conference.
Obama is right to demand fair treatment of Israel. Its dispute with Palestinians is political, not racial. But he is wrong to make U.S. participation in the racism meeting a hostage of that long running conflict.
Learning to say yes, is as important as knowing when to say no.