International human rights law expert. UCLA School of Law professor. Faculty director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA Law. Winner of UCLA’s Distinguished Teaching Award, the university’s highest honor for excellence in the classroom. United Nations special rapporteur on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance — an appointment she held even before becoming a tenured UCLA faculty member. By any measure, E. Tendayi Achiume’s résumé is impressive.
But that doesn’t mean she’s resting on her laurels. Not when social justice uprisings in response to the police killing of George Floyd have taken hold across the country and around the world. In the wake of this tragedy — and the anger and despair that have followed — there’s new momentum to transform law enforcement in the U.S. Scholars like Achiume and her UCLA Law colleagues are dedicated to examining the implications and possibilities of this moment.
UCLA Magazine spoke with Achiume via Zoom to find out what comes next.
Has the United States signed international agreements that it’s currently violating in terms of its own police conduct?
Absolutely. It definitely has violated anti-racism treaties. There was a report that showed the 20 biggest police departments in the U.S. — their use of force policies, for example — are completely out of whack with international human rights standards. So on the policing front and also on the systemic racism front, there’s a clear gap between what is permitted in the U.S. and what its international obligations are.
What would it look like to have the U.S. fulfill its human rights obligations in the sphere of policing and systemic racism?
It would be transformative. I’m not somebody who thinks the international human rights system is perfect or some sort of cure-all. But there are opportunities and resources at the international level that just don’t exist at the domestic level.
At the international level, the vision of prohibited racial discrimination is one that tracks not just intent but also effects. If you have policies in place that have a disparate impact on racial or ethnic minority groups, and the disparate impact is to undercut their human rights, that’s considered prohibited racial discrimination.
In the international context, they’re called special measures — domestically, that’s affirmative action — where you have race-conscious remedies that recognize that either because of historical or contemporary structures, those [minority] groups are excluded. Under international human rights law, states are required to take special measures to protect ethnic and racial and other groups. Even there, greater consonance between the domestic system and the international system would allow for a different way of thinking about how you achieve racial justice at the domestic level.
The treaty that is the focus of my work is the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). This treaty provides a comprehensive anti-racism framework that includes a number of things.
It includes the broad definition of prohibited racial discrimination, where it’s not just about intent, it’s also about effects. It includes affirmative action or special measures. And it also requires states to review their national and local policies in all aspects of government and public offices — including the police — to make sure there are no practices or policies in place that advance racial discrimination.
If you look at other liberal democracies, most countries have brought their legal frameworks in line with a lot of the international standards. What ends up happening is a problem of compliance. You can have laws, and then governments don’t comply. But with the U.S., it’s not just a lack of compliance, it’s a failure to actually adopt the legislation. That means the obligations that the U.S. has can’t be made real for people who live in the U.S.
“If what you’re looking for is easy answers, you’re not ready for change.”
E. Tendayi Achiume
Faculty director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA Law
Unlike many countries, the U.S. does not have a national police force. Is that significant in terms of advancing police reforms at the national level or in terms of comparing American practices to those of other nations?
In the countries I’ve visited [in my role with the U.N.], there’s a fair amount of localization of the police forces. Usually, it’s municipal authorities that have control over the police, and there will be some kind of federal or national body, but oversight tends to be local, for the most part.
The idea that “we are our own political entity” among states definitely makes it harder in this country [to have uniformity of reform]. But it also allows states to take the lead in implementing these international human rights standards.
It’s the U.S. that signs the treaty, for instance, not California, but there’s nothing that stops California from adopting state legislation that makes international human rights the law of that state. Some cities, like Los Angeles, have started adopting human rights treaties that the state hasn’t been willing to adopt.
There’s a treaty called the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The U.S. is one of six countries in the world that has not fully implemented this treaty — definitely the only established democracy. But Los Angeles has adopted a CEDAW ordinance, which aims to bring those human rights standards to a city level.
There’s no reason why Los Angeles couldn’t adopt ICERD and have those standards be the ones that govern. There’s no reason why California couldn’t do it. It would have made international human rights law become domestic law.
Have the police department reforms of the past 10 or 20 years led to better outcomes and behavior?
I tend to agree with the social movement actors who say that reforms have not addressed the fundamental problems. When you’re dealing with unjust regimes and structures, you can talk about changes on the margins, but that’s not [remedying] the real harm.
In Los Angeles, Black Lives Matter’s critique is that the dynamics of power and the role of police in so many Black and brown communities have not fundamentally changed. They are still terrorized by these institutions and treated as second-class citizens. Their race is still determining whether they live or die and what kinds of access to education they have in ways that reforms just cannot address.
One of the calls has been for divestment and reinvestment in mental health and community services. If you are putting body cameras on police, that’s not going to address community needs. It’s not going to give people access to the resources they need to truly thrive. To ask if reforms have made the situation better is to miss the fact that reforms can’t undo the underlying injustices, which are based on how the color of your skin determines your quality of life in a country where that’s not supposed to matter.
People seem to mean different things when they talk about defunding or abolishing the police. What do those terms mean to you, and do you support them?
I do, and I’ll tell you why. Those terms speak to two things.
One, they really lay bare the fact that some institutions that we view as valuable, democratic institutions here to serve everyone were never designed for that purpose. In the U.S., there is a clear genealogy that the institution of policing — and its relationship to slavery and Jim Crow — is an institution that was never tailored for the equal protection of all Americans, least of all racial and ethnic minorities.
So part one of the abolitionist critique is, it’s a mistake to think that this is an institution that is not performing properly. Instead, we have to recognize these institutions as fulfilling the logic according to which they were created.
The second part of that becomes: What would it mean to undo those institutions? And what would it mean to build institutions that are designed for equality and non-subordination and to serve everybody, irrespective of the color of your skin?
It’s not that people who say “defund the police” or “abolish the police” are saying there is not a need to ensure there is safety in communities. No, they’re saying, “Let’s have a conversation to design institutions that are made for that purpose.” To me, it no longer feels radical to call for abolition. Because if you can agree that the institutions you are trying to abolish were designed for a function that is contrary to equality and justice, then it has to follow that the solution should be to think about what it would mean to have institutions that can do the job right.
It’s not as though there haven’t been attempts to reform the police and to do things differently. These calls for abolition are not coming from nowhere — they’re coming from centuries of living under brutality.
I think it’s most scary to individuals who benefit from the status quo. That sentiment of whether you feel you can trust the police is definitely racialized and classed in the U.S. The prospect of abolition is most terrifying to people who are served by the existing institutions. “Why would you want to abolish something that has always worked for me?” The visceral anger at the proposition of abolition is rooted in benefiting from the system that we have and being comfortable with the costs of that system for other people.
People might ask, “What would abolition look like?” What’s exciting about this moment is that movements are giving us a blueprint for abolition. They’re saying it would mean that you give more money to schools and to communities to provide mental health facilities, and you create institutions that aren’t armed to the teeth to police these communities.
What should institutions like UCLA be doing to confront racism in policing and, if possible, to eliminate it?
I think any institution that is really serious about these things has to be ready to be remade. That institution has to be willing to understand that it’s part of the problem. I find this in my work as special rapporteur. Everyone asks, “How do we change? How do we change the situation?” What they’re hoping is that they can throw some things at a problem and it will go away. They are unwilling to understand that it will require restructuring their very institution for us to be able to see change.
We [at UCLA] have to be willing to remake our faculties and student bodies in ways that give voice to the goals we are talking about. We have to have a conversation about affirmative action in universities — this is something coming up with Prop 209. We have to look at the way we hire, the way that we distribute power and allocate resources.
To say that we have a problem with systemic racism is to implicate the structures. And once you implicate the structures, you’re saying we have to change the structures. You can’t use the language of systemic racism without being willing to change the structures.
If what you’re looking for is easy answers, you’re not ready for change. [It will take] sitting down with people, figuring out what it will mean to remake those structures and being prepared for what that world means, where you’re being remade. That might mean there are things that we hold as valuable without understanding what the costs of those things are. To me, that’s where the action is.