Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
March 19, 2021
Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you for convening us to commemorate this important day. And I thank the Secretary-General, Madam High Commissioner, and Dr. Iweala, for your leadership in pressing us all to do more toward the elimination of racial discrimination, wherever and by whomever.
This meeting – this commemoration – is personal to me. I am a person of African descent. But more importantly, I am a descendant of slaves. My great grandmother Mary Thomas, born in 1865, was the child of a slave. This is just three generations back from me.
I grew up in the segregated South. I was bused to a segregated school, and on weekends, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on lawns in our neighborhood. When I was in high school, I was asked by a little girl, for whom I babysat, if I was an N-word because her dad had used that word for me.
I know the ugly face of racism. I lived racism. I have experienced racism. And I survived racism.
And through this process, I learned a simple truth: Racism is not the problem of the person who experiences it. Those of us who experience racism cannot, and should not, internalize it, despite the impact that it can have on our everyday lives.
We must face it down, every time, no matter whom it’s directed towards.
Racism is the problem of the racist. And it is the problem of the society that produces the racist. And in today’s world, that is every society. And in so many of our communities and countries, racism is endemic. It’s built in, like a rot in a frame. And it remains, and it festers, and it spreads because many of those in charge allow it to. Others look away and pretend it’s not there. But like a cancer, if ignored, it grows.
Today, we commemorate our joint commitment to end all racial discrimination. And we take stock of our efforts during the midterm review of the Decade of People of African Descent. In America, conducting that review requires a reckoning – a reckoning with our dark history of chattel slavery.
Four-hundred-and-two years ago, African slaves were forced onto the shores of the colony of Virginia. Two years ago, the 1619 Project brought attention to this anniversary, and put the consequences of slavery, and the contributions of Black Americans, back at the center of our history and of our national narrative. As the project detailed, slavery is the original sin of America. It’s weaved white supremacy and black inferiority into our founding documents and principles.
The Legacy Museum in Alabama traces this history, and if you’ve not been there, I encourage you all to take a trip. Its exhibits draw a direct line from slavery to lynchings to segregation to mass incarceration and testify to this terrible history and the impact it is having on our people today.
But even though slavery is our original sin, America is not the original source of slavery. Others share this shame with us. Slavery has existed in every corner of the globe. Africans enslaved fellow Africans long before the American colonists existed. And sadly, in many places around the world, slavery still exists today.
As the scholar Isabel Wilkerson argues, humans in all contexts have ranked human value, pitting the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of others. In America, that takes many forms. Chief among them: our legacy of white supremacy.
This year, the senseless killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black Americans sparked a reckoning with racial justice, a movement that spread across the world: Black Lives Matter.
And because Black Lives Matter, we need to dismantle white supremacy at every turn. This means looking at other kinds of hate, too.
The FBI has reported a spike in hate crimes over the past three years – particularly against Latino Americans, Sikhs, Muslim Americans, Jewish Americans, and immigrants. The most recent data shows hate crimes rising to a level not seen in over a decade. And that doesn’t even capture the bullying, discrimination, brutality, and violence that Asian Americans have faced since the outbreak of COVID-19.
The mass shooting in Atlanta is only the latest example of this horror. At President Biden’s direction, we are flying our flag at half-staff at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, to honor the victims of this terrible, senseless tragedy.
It is so important we stand together – we stand unified – against this scourge. In unity, we have strength. But divisions and misperceptions about each other work against all of us.
We also need to recognize that racism is far from unique in America. Across four decades and four continents in the Foreign Service, I experienced racism in countless international contexts, from overly zealous searches at airports, to police racially profiling my son, to being made to wait behind white patrons for a table at a restaurant. Racism was and continues to be a daily challenge wherever we are.
And for millions, it’s more than a challenge. It’s deadly. Like in Burma, where Rohingya and others have been oppressed, abused, and killed in staggering numbers. Or in China, where the government has committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.
The prevalence, and pervasiveness, of racial discrimination might make the situation look hopeless. But let me be clear: I remain hopeful. I am hopeful because I have seen how communities and countries can enact change. And I have experienced that progress in my own lifetime.
Personally, I am just one example of what hope and strength can do. After all, this descendant of slaves is before you today as the U.S. Representative to the United Nations. The first chapter of my life story – born in poverty to uneducated parents – this could not have been predicted.
So I ask, what can we do to promote change and keep hope alive for victims of racism?
We can’t control the hate in people’s heart. But we can change the rules that give them license. That’s how I’m sitting here. It’s why we were able to welcome Vice President Kamala Harris to the UN this week. It’s why President Biden’s cabinet is the most diverse in history and includes the first Native American named to a cabinet post.
We can make our communities, and our governments, reflect our highest aspirations – even if some individuals still fall short. We can act. And in the Biden-Harris administration, we are doing just that.
In the first 60 days, the President has made this a priority: from redressing racial discrimination in housing, to ending private prisons that warehouse young black and brown men, to respecting the sovereignty of Native American tribes, to combatting xenophobia and discrimination against Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders.
The Biden-Harris Administration also recognizes how the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis has been disproportionately damaging to members of racial and ethnic minorities. So, we have taken steps, like providing emergency relief funds, increasing access to nutritious food, and passing* federal student loan payments, that we know will particularly help Black and brown communities.
To be clear, this is just the beginning. Ending racial discrimination, particularly in our criminal justice system, will be an ongoing top priority for the President, and for the entire Biden-Harris Administration. And we ask that other countries join us.
We call for all countries to ratify and implement the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. After all, this is about shaping the future. It’s shaping the future we want for our children, and our grandchildren, and their grandchildren.
Already, they are demanding we do better. They are coming up with new ideas and they’re pushing for progressive action. They’re asking more from their politicians and their governments. And they’re in the streets, marching for charge.
They say that “Black Lives Matter.” Because they do.
They chant: “This is what democracy looks like.” Because it is.
This is the American way.
We have flaws. Deep, serious flaws. But we talk about them. We work to address them. And we press on, in hopes that we can leave the country better than we found it.
We can do the same on a multilateral scale. Let us expose the racism and racial discrimination endemic in every society, around the globe. Let us press forward, to root out that discrimination and remove the rot from our foundations. And on this day dedicated to ending racial discrimination, as our flags fly at half-staff, let us leave our children a less hateful, more hopeful world.
Let us give them a future. A future without fear. A future without violence. That is the legacy that I hope they can inherit.