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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion (2000 - 2009) | Event: Racism and Public Policy Conference


Racism and Public Policy Conference

  • Date: 3 - 5 Sep 2001
  • Location: Durban, South Africa
  • Speakers: Alexandra Pero, Amina Mama, Angela King, Antonio Guimaraes, Benjamin Bowling, Bernard Magubane, Boo Teik Khoo, Diego Iturralde, Frene Ginwala, George Fredrickson, Glenn Loury, Guy Mhone, Hajo Funke, Hans-Georg Betz, Jane Bennett, Jeroen Doomernik, Jomo Sundaram, Kum Kum Bhavnani, Kwesi Prah, Lee Swepston, Lily Rahim, Manning Marable, Marcia Langton, Marisol de la Cadena, Mark Suzman, Mary Robinson, Neville Alexander, Njabulo Ndebele, Peter Schatzer, Pierre Sané, Ralph Premdas, Ray Jureidini, Renosi Mokate, Robert Bullard, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Sam Moyo, Sheldon Danziger, Thandika Mkandawire, Tom Lodge, Tracey Mcintosh, Vernellia Randall, Vijay Prashad
  • Project Title: Racism and Public Policy

Theme 4 The Impact of Public Policies on Race Relations


The fourth theme of the UNRISD conference focuses on the impact of public policies on race relations. A number of policies exist for tackling racism, racial prejudice, discrimination, xenophobia and inequalities. These range from legal instruments and socio-economic programmes to educational policies that seek to change behaviour and promote inclusiveness. They may involve sensitivity to racial cleavages in devising economic and social policies and reforming governance institutions. Targeted programmes may be adopted to correct historical injustices or assist excluded groups to get out of poverty and take up available opportunities. Public policies may be implemented in macro- and micro-level settings where groups compete for resources and public offices. They have differential impacts, including among targeted beneficiaries. They are also often contested by different groups, making it difficult to predict their overall impact on social change or draw universal lessons that may be applicable to all situations.

Six areas of public policies will be addressed: affirmative action policies; anti-poverty programmes; governance reforms for minority representation; law enforcement agencies and criminal justice systems; commissions for racial equality and workplace discrimination; and regulatory mechanisms to check racial prejudice in scientific experiments or clinical trials.

Affirmative action policies are associated with efforts to correct socio-economic disabilities, which certain groups may have suffered as a result of past discriminatory public policies. They focus on issues of employment, admission into educational institutions, government contracts, and broad areas of social policy. Their content and application may vary according to whether the targeted population constitutes the majority group and has strong access to policy-making institutions, or whether beneficiaries are a minority whose influence on lawmakers, the executive branch of government and administrators is limited. Policies are thus likely to vary a lot in countries as different as the United States and South Africa. And it is not a serious issue on the agenda of race relations in most European countries, where the debate tends to centre on how to eliminate racial discrimination and offer immigrants equal opportunities in job markets and other social fields.

Affirmative action policies have come under considerable attack in the United States in recent years: sections of the white population see them as open-ended commitments, reverse forms of discrimination and a violation of individual rights. In South Africa, on the other hand, such policies seem to suffer from the constraints of fiscal prudence and the need to maintain economic competitiveness.

Affirmative action policies may be backed by anti-poverty programmes, or micro-level programmes oriented towards urban development in racially mixed settlements. It is often the case that special programmes may be needed for poorer sections of deprived communities, as affirmative action policies get captured by middle classes. While professionals may migrate into more affluent neighbourhoods and secure good jobs, the poor may be trapped in ghettoes, inner cities and shantytowns, where crime, drugs and unemployment are rife and basic services are poor. In Brazil, Venezuela, and many Caribbean countries, race relations may appear non-antagonistic or cordial, but indices of disease and poverty may be racially biased.

Anti-poverty programmes, such as in housing and health care provisioning, skills training, and basic income support are often non-racial in content, which makes it interesting to discuss how different "racial groups" are affected by them. Despite their non-racial character, such programmes may suffer from some of the constraints of affirmative action policies: beneficiaries, service providers, administrators and taxpayers may represent different groups and interests, thus influencing the funding and implementation of such programmes; a dependency culture may develop among beneficiaries; there may be selection and information problems in targeting the poor; and a multi-tier provisioning system may emerge, condemning the poor to third-rate services.

Correcting racism and racial discrimination may involve reform of governance institutions. It is often not enough to introduce legal instruments or educational policies to transform the public sector into a non-racial institution. The question of who makes and administers laws and public policies is equally important. All groups in society ought to feel a sense of belonging, representation and shared interest in the institutions that govern their lives if the public sector is to function effectively. Issues of representation are thus important in discussing public policies in racially divided societies. Discussions of this area have been influenced by the debate on governance reform in ethnically plural societies. Reform instruments include proportional representation through List PR electoral rules, grand coalitions of groups in the formation of governments, majoritarian electoral arrangements that may force political parties to seek votes outside of their assumed core racial group, decentralization, reserved seats for racial minorities, and racial or communal roles to ensure some measure of balanced representation in parliament and government. In the proposed PR system in Burundi's peace plan, for instance, it is stipulated that at least the third candidate on a party list must come from a different group. Governance reforms, as they apply to countries where conceptions of race and ethnicity converge, merit attention.

The elimination of racial discrimination and injustice requires competent, neutral, responsive and accountable law enforcement agencies. However, police departments in multi-racial societies may constitute part of the problem of racism; in many countries, their preferential treatment of individuals has been queried. They are accused of using excessive force, torture and racist language against people they perceive as different; arrests and searches may be carried out largely on the basis of race; and young men with different skin colour and other physical attributes may be questioned for walking in groups or loitering. Sometimes these discriminatory practices may result in the shooting and killing of victims, provoking racial riots. Concerns have also been expressed about the way the criminal justice system operates in multi-racial societies, where race may account for a high proportion of convictions. The way law enforcement agencies and criminal justice systems are responding to these problems should be addressed at the UNRISD conference.

Many multi-racial societies have established institutions to monitor racial discrimination and promote equality of opportunities in the workplace. These institutions enjoy considerable autonomy from government, are staffed by professionals who represent different groups in society and are expected to operate dispassionately. They receive complaints from the public and carry out independent investigations of workplace practices in both the public and private sectors. But their powers tend to vary across countries. In some, they may be empowered to impose fines or award benefits to victims of racial discrimination; in others, their powers may be restricted to tasks of persuasion and dialogue, or initiating legal actions against perceived perpetrators of racially motivated practices. Like all regulatory bodies, they may be vulnerable to members' self-interest, or institutional capture by government or the agencies, companies and individuals they seek to regulate.Comparing the experiences of different commissions for racial equality would help throw light on the potentials and limits of regulatory bodies in correcting the scourge of racial discrimination.

Finally, the UNRISD conference will examine regulations that govern the behaviour of scientists, professionals and other public figures on matters relating to scientific experiments, clinical trials, industrial products and safety standards. Wide disparities among countries and groups in the fields of science and technology, as well as the growing need for solutions to chronic diseases of various types, may pose problems for race relations. Racial prejudice may influence the choices of scientists and industrialists in selecting sites, individuals or groups, for experiments and clinical trials. There have been a number of well-reported cases in recent years of scientists abusing their professional codes of conduct and causing harm to populations that look different from the scientists. Many companies also routinely use different raw materials for their products in different countries, evade standards, or offer low-quality goods to poor countries with weak regulations. There is the additional problem of companies dumping industrial waste in countries or communities that appear different from firm owners and managers.Examination of how to improve regulations in this field, including holding professionals, scientists and industrialists accountable to the public good, is required.