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The UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination: Race, and Economic and Social Human Rights
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Human Rights Quarterly 24.1 (2002) 205-236

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The UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination:
Race, and Economic and Social Human Rights

William F. Felice

I. Introduction

Simplified racial categories can be misleading and dangerous, since individuals are not only a race, but also a class, gender, and sexuality. Thus, broad generalizations about race can be deceptive and groundless in individual cases. In the real world, a person does not exist only as a racial category. 1

According to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), 2 race encompasses color, descent, and national or ethnic origin. "Descent" suggests social origin, such as heritage, lineage, or parentage. "National or ethnic origin" denotes linguistic, cultural, and historical roots. Thus, this broad concept of race clearly is not limited to objective, mainly physical elements, but also includes subjective and social components. The ingredients considered central to a [End Page 205] person's "race" may, in fact, vary from place to place. Some may emphasize linguistic and cultural factors while others emphasize social determinants. Certain castes, for example, are discriminated against for social reasons, but not ethnic reasons. Furthermore, nothing is permanent about all these aspects of race. Anthropologists have shown that environmental influences can profoundly change even the physical appearance of a human being in a relatively short time. 3

Recent scientific research on the human genome--the aggregate of genetic material encased in the heart of almost every cell of the body--has confirmed that the racial categories recognized by society are not reflected on the genetic level. Most of the scientists studying the human genome are convinced that the standard labels used to distinguish people by race have little or no biological meaning. The human species does not divide itself into separate biological groups or races. Dr. J. Craig Venter, head of the Celera Genomics Corporation concludes: "Race is a social concept, not a scientific one. We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the same small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world." 4 Dr. Harold P. Freeman, the chief executive, president, and director of surgery at North General Hospital in Manhattan, who has studied the issue of biology and race, states, "If you ask what percentage of your genes is reflected in your external appearance, the basis by which we talk about race, the answer seems to be in the range of .01 percent. This is a very, very minimal reflection of your genetic makeup." 5

Therefore, race, most certainly, cannot be understood simply in terms of skin color. Racial classifications, racist bigotry, and racial hatred often have not relied on skin color. Historical examples abound. The German Nazis' belief that the Russians (as white as the Germans) were subhuman led to a massacre of millions of Russian citizens. The white Irish farmers looked like the white British landlords in Ireland in the 1840s. Yet, the white British elite exported food and gave no concessions to the white Irish farmers and laborers after crop failures in 1846-1847, and thus, "imposed" the Irish potato famine. The issue here was not skin color, but political power. The white Irish farmers had no political or economic power. The powerful white British elite exported the food that could have saved hundreds of thousands of Irish lives. It was easier for the British to justify these policies by classifying the Irish as a backward and inferior people. 6 [End Page 206]

The genocide in Rwanda in the mid 1990s was led by black Hutus against black Tutsis. In fact, ethnographers have come to agree that Hutus and Tutsis cannot properly be called distinct ethnic groups. The two groups spoke the same language, followed the same religion, intermarried, and shared the same social and political culture. Rwanda was one of the few nations that shared one language, one faith, and one law. Yet the leaders of "Hutu power" mobilized their people around the idea that...