Remarks by Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield at a UN General Assembly Commemorative Meeting on the Intl Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

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March 21, 2023

Thank you, Mr. President, for convening us to commemorate this important day. And I want to thank Secretary-General Guterres for his presence and for his statement. And to thank, in particular, Mayor Adams for joining us today and for his bold remarks.

Colleagues, in past years on this commemorative day I have shared my own personal experiences with racial discrimination. So today, I want to share another story, one that I had never heard before, until earlier this month, when a local Baton Rouge, Louisiana, news station – where I come from – reported on it.

It’s the story of how a relative of mine, my mother’s cousin, Vincent Smith, fought for the right to vote for his family and for others. Vincent lives in West Feliciana Parish in rural Louisiana. He lived there all of his life. But back in 1965, West Feliciana was 68 percent Black. But not a single Black person there was registered to vote. And that was not a coincidence.

Vincent worked with an ally, a 20-year-old white girl from New York, to galvanize Black people who understood that their lives would change and improve, if they exercised their right to vote. And so, they built a real grassroots effort – a real grassroots movement. They trained for how to answer what Vince called the “foolish questions” of the racist voting rights test, a test where Black people got much harder questions than their white neighbors.

And when they saw what was happening, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on their neighbor’s lawns and shot bullets into the night sky. They did everything they could to instill fear and terror into the Black voters of West Feliciana. But Vincent and his community stood up anyway. They believed they would overcome. And they did. They registered to vote, and they voted. And Vincent said, “you have to fight for what you believe in.”

Colleagues, today I want to shout out the many unsung heroes, who have fought and continue fighting to eliminate racial discrimination. And I want to particularly thank my own cousin for sharing his story with the world and highlighting how important it is that we not forget how hard he and others fought for our rights.

And I want to encourage all of us to follow in their example, to fight for what we all believe in. And I know what the United Nations believes in, because this year we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“All human beings,” reads the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This profound statement is not an opinion. It’s a fact. Our human rights are inalienable and indivisible. They are interdependent and interrelated. And they are universal. Today, we must commit to making these rights real for everyone everywhere, regardless of their race or their ethnicity.

And I will be the first to tell you that the United States has not always done right by this commitment. We have a long history of racial discrimination – no one denies that. And I have been discriminated against myself. But we still have real and on-going challenges, from the lingering legacy of chattel slavery, and Native American displacement, to the rise of anti-Asian hate and anti-Semitism, to many other racist roots that run deep throughout our history and throughout our culture.

And yet, I am proud – I am so proud – of my country and the progress we have made, and that we are still making today to address these issues.

The Biden Administration is committed to dismantling structural racism, ending discrimination, and fighting back against all forms of xenophobia. As President Biden has said, “Advancing equity is not a one-year project. It’s a generational commitment.” That’s why President Biden has made advancing racial equality and combating systemic racism a core priority of his entire Administration. He signed four – four related executive actions as soon as he took office.

And at the U.S. Department of State, we released an Equity Action Plan last year. Secretary Blinken made clear that advancing equity in our foreign policy is a top priority. And he announced the appointment of a Special Representative for Racial Equity and Justice. Because racial discrimination is not a local problem. It is a global problem.

Sadly, every single country on this earth has some form of racism. And in some countries and contexts, that discrimination becomes deadly.

At the United Nations, we have an obligation to step up and stand up for human rights. To defend against racism and hatred in all of its forms. To champion platforms that spread ideas, elevate best practices, and bring us together to improve the safety and quality of life of all peoples.

That’s why we are proud to support the Permanent Forum on the Peoples of African Descent. In fact, we were the only country that made a voluntary contribution, and I encourage others to do the same. And it’s why at the UN we need to work with civil society more often and more broadly to tackle other forms of racism too.

The United Nations, as Ralph Bunche said in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, “exists not merely to preserve the peace but also to make change – even radical change – possible without violent upheaval.” The United Nations exists not merely to preserve the peace, but also to make change – even radical change – possible without violent upheaval. And I would take it one step further; I would say that if there is no justice, there can be no peace.

So let us make that radical change. Let us make this place, this United Nations, where our shared humanity is recognized. Where we remove the rot of racism from all of our foundations. And where we lift up the world’s many, many unsung heroes, like my cousin Vince, who are fighting to create a less hateful, more hopeful world.

Thank you very much.

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