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The Associated Press

DURBAN, South Africa (AP) - Black members of Congress condemned persistent racism in the United States on Friday.

``America is a racist state,'' Rep. Diane Watson, a California Democrat, said at a symposium coinciding with the opening of the World Conference Against Racism. She said unequal access to health care, education and political representation were examples of how racism continues to pervade American society.

Watson is one of seven U.S. lawmakers attending the racism conference as members of the Black Leadership Forum. All of them denounced U.S. government efforts to keep the issue of reparations for slavery off the conference agenda and insisted it should at least be open for discussion.

``Economics was always very much the basis for racism,'' said Texas Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. ``We will not be able to successfully move on until we discuss the 40 acres and a mule'' that the government promised freed slaves at the end of the Civil War in 1865 but never delivered.

A half-dozen black leaders took part in the symposium, laying out their positions as they prepare to lobby more than 166 delegations that will draft a final declaration on racism around the world. The U.N. conference ends Sept. 7.

Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, said that in addition to discussing reparations at an international level, he hoped black Americans would organize a conference on reparations in Washington next year.

``You've got to start back at the beginning so that you can understand where you are going,'' Conyers said, explaining what he said was the importance of discussing slavery.

Rep. Cynthia McKinney, a Democrat from Georgia, called on the United Nations to send investigators to look into the criminal justice system and capital punishment in the United States.

A representative from the NAACP, Hillary Shelton, joined McKinney in condemning the U.S. criminal justice and prison systems, especially the juvenile justice system.

``African-American children commit crime at exactly the same rate as white children,'' Shelton said, citing NAACP statistics. ``But African-American children, when brought before a judge, are six times more likely to be incarcerated.''

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, also a member of the Black Leadership Forum, said blacks in America have made great strides in fighting racism and can serve as an example to oppressed minorities around the world, but that more work needs to be done.

``While we have overcome legal apartheid, economic apartheid has yet to be touched,'' Jackson said.