The U.N.-sponsored World Conference Against Racism is not until August 31, but the debate about what topics to discuss is heating up. The controversy was evident Tuesday on Capitol Hill during a hearing of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee.

Among the objectives of the upcoming racism conference is to increase the level of awareness about racism and U.N. activities aimed at combating racism. But it was clear during the hearing that the mere definition of racism has become a problem for some countries, particularly the United States.

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, chair of the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, describes the points of disagreement. "The two pivotal issues which have dominated the pre-World Conference discussions are: reparations and compensation for victims of slavery and the anti-semitic/anti-Israel provisions which permeate throughout the draft document," she said. "Such attempts to equate 'Zionism with Racism' undermined the two previous world conferences on the issue of racism."

Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen says the two issues were complex with far-reaching ramifications. She hoped the hearing would have a positive impact on the drafting of the final documents.

Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, Democrat of Georgia and ranking member of the subcommittee, said she was surprised that the Bush administration has been critical of the World Conference against Racism. "I find the Bush administration's public criticism of the WCAR at odds with his carefully crafted public image, created for him by his minders: that is, the 'compassionate conservative,' a uniter not a divider. The Bush administration could use the WCAR to publicly show a commitment to end racism in this country. Given that 30 percent of the U.S. population consists of people of color and that we have all experienced racism first hand, I have to wonder if the Bush administration's position on the WCAR is just politically dumb or if it is perhaps indicative of something more malignant."

Congresswoman McKinney said the World Conference Against Racism provides a perfect opportunity for the Bush administration to show a clear commitment to preserving and extending civil rights in the United States. And she warned that if the President fails to provide a serious commitment to the conference, African Americans would show their disapproval in the presidential election in 2004.

Testifying for the Bush administration was William Wood, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for international organization affairs. Mr. Wood said the Bush administration is not against the World Conference against Racism, but it is opposed to its language.

"The U.S. has consistently opposed the call for reparations for a variety of reasons, and will continue to do so," he said. "There is no consensus in the U.S. on payment of reparations [for slavery]. It is not clear what would be the legal or practical effect of a call of reparations for injustices more than a century old. Nor is it clear that such a call would contribute to eliminate racism in the contemporary world."

Mr. Wood said the U.S. has a positive agenda for fighting against racism, including elimination of racial profiling, diversity in all aspects of law enforcement, and prohibiting violence motivated by race, color, or descent.