Race Matters

Race Matters

At the end of this summer, an event will take place that could change the way the world thinks about one of its most vexing problems–racism.


At the end of this summer, an event will take place that could change the way the world thinks about one of its most vexing problems–racism. From August 31 to September 7, the United Nations will hold the “World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance” in Durban, South Africa. Bringing together leaders of governments and NGOs from around the globe, the conference will address problems of discrimination ranging from the oppression of indigenous peoples to anti-immigrant hostility, caste discrimination and the legacy of slavery and colonialism.

Previous UN gatherings on the topic of racism, in 1978 and 1983, were dominated by the long shadow of apartheid in South Africa, where the combination of local activism and international scrutiny proved uniquely powerful. Who could have dreamed at the time of the 1983 conference that this year’s meeting would be held in a democratic South Africa in which Nelson Mandela is a universally respected ex-president?

The focus that past meetings had on a single pariah government, however, allowed other countries to criticize discrimination abroad without addressing problems within their own borders. Now that the most blatant symbol of state-sanctioned racism has fallen, the emphasis will be on more complex forms of discrimination that, to some extent, plague all nations. As Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former president of Ireland, said in a recent interview: “Things were sort of simpler in a way during the previous conferences, whereas now we must get beyond the stereotype of the ‘terrible racist’ and recognize in all of us the potential for racist attitudes. Things are subtler, more insidious, and we really have to address them courageously and honestly.”

For that reason, this year’s conference is sending shock waves of discomfort through governments around the world. As Gay McDougall, executive director of the International Human Rights Law Group, recently told the New York Times, “the last two conferences were about foreign policy…this one is in everybody’s back yard, and there’s a lot of nervousness about it.” Such anxiety may stem from fear that the conference could produce real change. For a number of countries, it will be crucial in providing a forum to raise difficult questions of racism and xenophobia for the first time.

The World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, is a powerful example of how aggressive international collaboration and advocacy by NGOs and governments can force taboo issues like domestic violence and trafficking in women onto the world stage. A number of organizations that were key players in the Women’s Conference, such as the Afro-Brazilian women’s organization Geledes, are taking leadership roles on the road to Durban. One of the most important contributions of those activists is the notion of “intersectionality”–the idea that racism is intertwined with dynamics of gender, poverty and other characteristics. Certain groups of women are victimized sexually, for example, not only because they are women but also because they belong to a vulnerable or stereotyped racial group. Durban will build on the more sophisticated analysis of racism that was developed in Beijing.

This year’s conference comes at a time when a number of antidiscrimination movements around the world are gaining momentum. Brazilian society, for example, has long perpetuated the myth of an integrated and egalitarian “racial democracy.” But that myth is belied by the reality of Brazil’s staggering racial inequality, including vast, predominantly black ghettos, or favelas; widespread employment discrimination; police shootings of black street children; and other manifestations of embedded institutional racism against Afro-Brazilians. More than a decade after Brazil’s constitution outlawed racial segregation, a powerful movimento negro is giving life to that command through tireless organizing, advocacy and litigation. Afro-Brazilian NGOs joined with black groups from Uruguay, Venezuela, Colombia, Canada, the United States and elsewhere to play a key role in the Americas Preparatory Committee for the World Conference in Santiago, Chile. They are poised to make Durban a transformative event for their cause.

The conference also provides a platform for highlighting casteism as a form of invidious discrimination and an international human rights violation. In South Asia, caste discrimination remains a powerful force despite well-established laws against it. Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables,” are often forced to use separate and unequal wells for drinking water, are relegated to degrading and unsanitary jobs, are far less likely to have electricity and sanitary facilities, and suffer arbitrary beatings and killings at the hands of upper-caste members. But leaders of India’s National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights and international organizations like Human Rights Watch are spearheading a global campaign against casteism that is gaining steam. The World Conference provides a platform for highlighting caste discrimination as a modern-day atrocity and an international human rights violation.

By bringing an international human rights perspective to national and local problems of discrimination, the World Conference can also shed new light on racial justice issues in the United States. One powerful example is affirmative action, which is now at a crossroads, as recent efforts have limited or dismantled these policies in the nation’s three most racially diverse states–California, Texas and Florida. A generally unsympathetic Supreme Court will again take up the issue–in the context of federal contracting programs–next term. At the same time, affirmative action policies continue to enjoy considerable support from the international community. In South Africa the government recently adopted legislation that includes affirmative action measures in order to overcome a half-century of apartheid. And in 1998 the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recommended that the government of Namibia adopt affirmative action measures “to overcome vestiges of the past that still hamper the possibilities for black people” in education and employment. The Czech Republic and Macedonia have each adopted affirmative action policies to promote the participation of Roma (pejoratively known as “Gypsy”) communities, and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has called on the governments of Bulgaria and Hungary to do the same.

Moreover, 157 countries, including the United States, have ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which requires “special and concrete measures to ensure the adequate development and protection of certain racial groups or individuals belonging to them, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the full and equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The World Conference cannot be expected to settle the question of affirmative action in the United States. But the context of global human rights enforcement and international law clearly brings a fresh perspective to what has thus far been a rather parochial debate. Finally, the conference can lead to a truly international movement of NGOs working against racism and xenophobia. As the Beijing Conference did in the women’s rights sphere, Durban will bring together leaders and organizations doing very similar work in different parts of the world, heretofore in isolation. Though language differences, limited resources and differing political and cultural contexts will remain obstacles, the World Conference provides an opportunity to forge a lasting alliance around a common framework of international human rights.

As Gay McDougall of the International Human Rights Law Group explains, economic globalization makes cooperation across borders even more essential today. “No one country’s civil rights laws can be effective in regulating the transnational corporations and gigantic institutional investors or the international financial and trade institutions that are setting today’s global agenda,” says McDougall. “We don’t have a chance unless we develop ways to coordinate citizen action across national boundaries.” Keith Harper of the Native American Rights Fund agrees. Describing the unified voice of indigenous peoples at the Americas Preparatory Committee meeting, Harper says, “Every indigenous representative that I heard said–in various ways–that they wanted more political, social and cultural autonomy and that they wanted more control over their land resources. [Our] message, the message we heard from countless tribal leaders in the US, was the same as all indigenous peoples-our sovereignty should be respected.”

Combating discrimination and racial hatred has been central to the UN’s mission since its founding in 1945 out of the devastation of World War II and the Holocaust. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, declares that all human beings are born “equal in dignity and rights,” and one of the UN’s earliest conventions declares genocide an international crime. And since 1965, ICERD has made clear that racism is a manifest violation of human rights. The World Conference offers a chance to breathe new life into those principles and to bring concrete change to victims of discrimination around the planet. It is a chance not to be missed.

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