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OUT HERE

The U.N. comes calling

May 30, 2008|Lisa Richardson

Doudou Diene of Senegal walked into a downtown Los Angeles job center this week in search of racism. He found it everywhere he looked.

The day laborers at first hesitated to open up with Diene, an investigator sent by the United Nations to ferret out signs of American injustice. But as they talked, they warmed to the opportunity to present their own experiences of this country's racial divide.

"The Irish? People of Irish descent? Very strict, very disciplined, very racist; but they pay you very well. Nineteen dollars an hour," said a worker named Diego. In Los Angeles, Diene was told by a collection of workers who have traveled across the country, there is less racism but employers are miserly. White employers will pay illegal workers less for doing the same job as legal residents, and Latino employers don't care about immigration status but are the most likely to try to stiff them on pay.

"Do employers ever ask the race of workers when they call the center seeking laborers?" Diene asked. The answer was affirmative. "Ah, I need to know that. My report must be very specific."

Diene has visited more than 20 countries on this tour, including Japan, Colombia, Italy and Russia. He came to L.A. as part of an eight-city swing through the United States. His report will ultimately be presented to the U.N.'s Human Rights Council, and that's raising a lot of hackles among conservative critics of the organization. Some members of the council, such as Iran and Cuba, are human-rights abusers that are deeply critical of U.S. intervention in their affairs, and there's ample reason to worry that these countries will use Diene's report as a justification for ignoring pressure to reform.

On the other hand, if the U.S. is going to demand the monitoring of other countries, it's going to have to accept the same treatment at home. It won't hurt us to look at ourselves, and our real and continuing problems with racism, in the mirror held up by the international community.

Among other sites, Diene also visited skid row and the L.A. County Men's Central Jail. Black-brown tension, he noted after his visit to the jail, is a grave concern in L.A.

Diene's questions displayed a comprehensive understanding of U.S. history and politics, and for the migrants at the L.A. job center, it mattered enormously that the United Nations listened to them. "Discrimination is everywhere," said a young man named Samuel. "Where can you go where they treat you like a human being?"

Lisa Richardson

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