After weeks of deliberation, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has decided not to attend the U.N. conference on racism beginning in Durban, South Africa, later this week.
Senior U.S. officials said Saturday that the Bush administration has not yet determined whether to send a lower-level delegation from Washington, send diplomats in the region or possibly boycott the conference altogether.
For Washington, the two most controversial issues are moves to equate Zionism with racism and to make reparations for slavery.
The long-awaited decision is certain to evoke widespread disappointment and anger, both at home and abroad, for the stakes in South Africa extend far beyond those controversies, as the world debates whether to expand the definition of what constitutes a basic human right.
The U.S. move underscores the volatility of that debate--and the reluctance by even democratic governments to break new ground.
The dilemma about whether to attend the conference has been an ironic one for Powell, the nation's first African American secretary of State, who has written and spoken extensively about his own experiences with racism.
Some four decades ago, as a young Army lieutenant newly stationed in Georgia, he repeatedly butted up against lingering discrimination.
"I could go into a department store and they would take my money, as long as I did not try to use the men's room. I could walk along the street, as long as I did not look at a white woman," he recalled in his autobiography, "My American Journey."
Aides say the decision not to attend the conference was especially tough for Powell, who has openly and often said he wanted to go.
In contrast, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, the first African American to hold the other powerful foreign policy job in the executive branch, was a leading voice against sending Powell to Durban, according to U.S. officials and representatives of human rights groups who dealt with her.
Public pressure has been intense for weeks. The Congressional Black Caucus and rights groups have besieged the White House and State Department with appeals to send Powell.
"As a nation, we must be committed to end racism in all its forms. To do that, we need to be part of the discussion, whether we agree with the final [conference] declaration or not. . . . We should at least be at the table--and at the highest level," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), who will attend the conference in Durban as a member of the black caucus.
But the administration fears that the conference could spin out of control on several fronts. The most offensive issue is equating Zionism with racism or criticizing Israel, which are unacceptable, President Bush said Friday.
"We will not participate in a conference that tries to isolate Israel and denigrates Israel," Bush said at a news conference in Texas.
Reparations for slavery, which existed legally in the United States from 1619 to 1865, is the second hot-button issue. Several African countries, as well as African Americans, have demanded compensation that would follow the model of payments to Japanese Americans interned in the United States during World War II and to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
But focusing on reparations for slavery is counterproductive, U.S. officials say.
"Demands for financial reparations and a formal apology would do nothing to address racism and discrimination today," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
That's a position consistent with Powell's personal outlook.
"My message to young African Americans is to learn where you are and not where you might have been born three centuries ago. The cultural gap is too wide, the time past too long gone, for Africa to provide the only nourishment to the soul or mind of African Americans," he wrote in his autobiography.
The Bush administration generally wants to look forward rather than back in addressing racism--a position that has deeply frustrated some African American leaders.
"You have to correct the past before you can move forward. To say we'll only look forward ignores the plight of millions of people in their current conditions," said Lee.
The greater impact of the U.S. decision may be to undermine or defer a critical debate about whether to expand what human rights mean in the 21st century.
"This is a defining moment in the human rights movement," said Cathy Powell, director of the Human Rights Institute at Columbia University. "The world can't continue to look at either racism or human rights through a single-issue lens."
For the last half-century, since the landmark U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the world's primary focus has been on political and civil rights--including freedom to vote and participate equally in government and freedom of speech, worship and assembly--and on freedom from persecution and torture.
Today, however, a growing movement advocates embracing economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to housing, adequate wages, basic education and health care. These will be the underlying theme of the conference because discrimination in each area is usually related to racism.
"If you ask an American about human rights, he'll talk about freedom of speech and fair elections. If you talk to an African woman, she'll talk about her children getting medicine and an education," said Reed Brody, Human Rights Watch advocacy director and a delegate to the Durban forum.
"Human rights, according to the U.N. declaration [of 1948], spring from the dignity of the person," Brody added. "A person marginalized, not able to go to school, not able to get health care and not able to earn a decent living doesn't have dignity just as much as the person who can't speak freely."
Democracies and wealthy nations are not exempt from this spotlight. In Brazil, black women have the lowest average salary, about one-quarter the average for white men, and are employed in the most unhealthy locations. In India, Dalit "untouchables" cannot cross village lines separating them from higher castes, use the same wells or visit the same temples.
In the United States, 61% of schools are still racially segregated (meaning their enrollments are more than 50% students of color), intensely segregated (90% students of color) or racially exclusive (90% white), according to a coalition of U.S. human rights groups attending the forum.
"The subtext of the conference is that countries are uncomfortable turning the lens on themselves, as few are pure, including the United States with its problems of racial profiling or discrepancies in health care," said Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights.
But widening the definition of human rights and what constitutes racism is fraught with problems, from costs to enforcement.
"Determining civil and political rights is like an on-off switch. Either the government tortured or killed someone or it didn't. It can be measured. The others are more difficult to calibrate. How much food constitutes a basic right to sustenance, or how much housing represents the right to shelter?" said Cathy Powell.
A decision not to send a high-powered delegation to South Africa could hurt U.S. standing and potentially backfire, analysts warn.
"It'll reflect badly on the United States. It'll be a huge step backward. The United States is in the strongest position--because of its moral authority, influence and world leadership--to make a difference. We can't look to China or Russia to do this," said Gerald LeMelle, an advocacy director for Amnesty International and a delegate to the conference.
"So much of the strife and civil wars, unrest and genocide have come out of the failure to make any serious progress on racism in the past century. To pass up the opportunity again would be tragic."