1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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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 2 Social Dynamics of Racism and Inequalities


Under the second theme, the UNRISD conference will explore the economic, social and political processes that generate racism and discrimination. Racism and inequalities may be linked to discriminatory public policies, the way labour markets are structured, and differential access to governance institutions. Labour markets may be racially segmented because of past public policies, unequal development, or efforts by individuals from specific groups to protect advantages in certain lines of activity. Public policies and market segmentation may lead to physical segregation of groups, further reinforcing racial prejudice and antagonism. Racially segmented markets may provoke instability when they are bifurcated, encouraging groups to hold each other hostage.

Inequalities can also arise from the impacts of development policies and practices on different groups. When "race" overlaps with social class, inequalities may assume hierarchical race-class dimensions-of the types that may breed xenophobia and violence. Such inequalities may mask other cleavages by creating a racially bifurcated society. Many forms of racial inequalities are, however, ambiguous. Individuals in an assumed racial group may, for instance, rank well in socio-economic terms but the racial group may be disadvantaged nationally. Inequalities may occur in education, health provisioning, housing, incomes, employment, infrastructure development and asset holdings, such as land. "Race" may become a powerful tool in the hands of elites and politicians in struggles over public offices and resources.

This theme focuses on contemporary practices that drive racism, racial conflicts and inequalities in different regions of the world. Six issues will be considered: globalization, economic growth and racial inequalities; economic crisis and racial conflicts; land distribution, race relations and conflicts; modernization and cultural rights of indigenous minorities; immigration, multiculturalism and the nation state; and migrant workers, refugees and xenophobia.

Rapid integration of economies into the world market, advances in information technologies, and changes in production systems may alter structures of opportunity and shape the dynamics of race relations. Where economies have experienced sustained levels of growth, as in the United States, employment and incomes may improve even for disadvantaged groups. However, technological change may reinforce inequalities or introduce new types of segregation-the so-called digital divide-if excluded groups are unable to access the new technologies.

Globalization does not only offer opportunities for positive social change. It also creates economic crises and deprivation. A common crisis is financial volatility, associated with the opening of the capital accounts of developed and emerging market economies in the 1980s and 1990s. Such crises may rip the social fabric of countries as jobs, incomes and welfare protection are lost or undermined. The outcome may provoke racial riots in multi-racial societies, as losers who may belong to different groups channel their grievances against perceived winners. The developmental states in Southeast Asia, for instance, were based on an informal "racial" or social pact, in which the indigenous communities, who constitute the majority population, dominate the public sector and politics, while the minority Chinese control business enterprises. In Malaysia, this pact is formalized through a grand coalition between the dominant Malay and Chinese political parties. The financial crisis of 1997 that swept through much of Southeast Asia provoked widespread violence and racial riots in some countries.

Colonization, which was much more intense in some regions than others, produced sharp inequalities in land holdings between Europeans and the indigenous communities they conquered. In the Americas and Australasia, indigenous communities were almost wiped out, except in some parts of Latin America. In Southern Africa, however, the indigenous African population accounts for an overwhelming majority of the population; but as in the Americas and Australasia, land distribution is heavily skewed in favour of Europeans. In recent years, the land issue has gained public attention as indigenous communities demand redistribution. The problem has taken a dramatic turn in Zimbabwe where, with active government support, individuals who participated in the war of liberation, and peasants, have occupied white-owned farms; and an overwhelming proportion of the white community has joined a multi-ethnic opposition party in efforts to oust the government from power and protect advantages. Race relations in the entire region are likely to be seriously affected if solutions are not found to the land problem. In Canada, the United States and Australia, the land question has focused on monetary compensation and provision of land or reservations to indigenous groups. The debate in these countries also includes defence of the cultural rights of indigenous communities, raising questions about how to balance individual and group rights in democratic settings.

Globalization and modernization are associated with mass migration of people from different regions to countries perceived to offer opportunities for self-advancement. Immigrants may arrive with differences in physical appearance, culture, religion and language, which native populations may perceive as threatening to their values and notions of what a society should be. Especially in Western Europe, migration poses a challenge to traditional conceptions of the nation state. Nationalist struggles in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries established a tight relationship between the state and the nation. Defined as a group of people with shared history, culture, language and territory, a nation was expected to form a culturally homogenous state.

Recent trends in cultural diversity challenge such notions of nation state homogeneity. An emerging approach is the conceptualization of the state as "a community of communities", or multiculturalism. Under multiculturalism, immigrants and natives will practice what they believe are their respective cultures, religions and languages, while simultaneously subscribing to overarching values of responsible citizenship. Native groups and politicians who subscribe to nationalist ideas of assimilation or exclusion contest this approach. The way the public sphere is defined in cultural terms has implications for the structure of opportunities and stable race relations.

A related issue is the fate of migrant workers and refugees in host societies, especially in Southeast Asia, on the United States-Mexican border and in oil-rich countries of the Middle East. The Middle East has experienced massive waves of immigrants engaged in short-term work-from household help to highly qualified professionals. An understanding of how religion mediates responses to immigration may be important in such contexts. In countries where civil and democratic rights are not well established, migrant workers and refugees may suffer gross violations of their basic rights, including xenophobia from sections of the mass public and governments seeking to deflect public criticism of economic policy failures or crises. This may sometimes lead to violence against migrants and refugees, especially where they are perceived to be physically or culturally different from the host population.