1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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The Last Word: Reflections on Racism and Public Policy

17 Mar 2003

At the turn of the twentieth century, W.E.B. du Bois—the pre-eminent intellectual of the African-American people—foretold that it would be the century of the “colour line”. During the decades that followed, the world witnessed the rise and fall of Nazism and the Holocaust, the civil rights movement in the United States, the end of colonialism and apartheid, the emergence of indigenous peoples as political actors on the international scene, the renewal of racism in Europe, and the horrendous spectacle of ethnic cleansings and genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda. And yet 100 years later, the “colour line” is still with us, separating peoples and cultures, dividing the powerful from the downtrodden. Even as it binds some together in tight ethnic communities, it ties up many others in conceptual knots.

Thinking about racism has undergone some important changes since the founding of the United Nations. During the initial phase, racism was identified mainly with the legacy of Nazi ideology. Nazi racism was based on a pseudo-scientific ideology of racial purity and superiority, which had its roots in numerous strands of Western thought and found its way into the language of anthropology, biology, psychology and other disciplines. Today, scientific racism no longer commands any academic recognition whatsoever. The first activities of the United Nations in the struggle against racism related to eliminating this poisonous legacy from the post-war world, as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (Article 2).

The next phase stemmed from the struggle against colonialism, as well as the fight to end apartheid. The 1950s and 1960s saw many former colonies achieve independence and statehood, as well as the civil rights movement in the United States. The United Nations proclaimed the right to self-determination in the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples of 1960, later incorporated in the Human Rights Covenants adopted by the General Assembly in 1966: “All peoples have the right to self-determination, by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development” (Paragraph 2). Thus emphasis shifted from individual attitudes and structured racist ideologies to the rights of peoples and the building of a new, more equitable international order. Yet the rise to prominence of the Third World formed the background to a new scenario of international inequities.

During the 1970s and 1980s, racism re-emerged in a new guise, this time in the industrial heartlands of the North, involving mainly migrant laborers from the periphery, refugees and former colonial subjects. Incidents of racist violence increased in the urban neighbourhoods of Western Europe; and racial discrimination was reported in education, housing, employment, health services and the criminal justice system. The youth of racial minorities has been particularly singled out through a process of “criminalization”: in the United States, for example, Blacks and Latinos have been prominent victims of racial profiling and discrimination, and since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, Arabs have become the newest targets of such practices.

At the same time, a number of states began to see racism not as a series of isolated incidents, but rather as a patterned and structured social problem. While few people openly advocated racial discrimination of the phenotypical variety, in the new global environment the very concepts of race and racial relations were changing. As immigrant communities mushroomed in the industrial states, perceived biological distinctions meshed with recognized cultural differences. In some countries, “race relations” became a code word for relations between culturally differentiated communities. Human rights defenders were now no longer advocating just general equality (which seemed to many to be unattainable), but a new concept: the right to be different. States were expected to become less assimilationist and more pluralist. Cultural differences were not to be abolished, but respected and celebrated. The elusive melting pot was to be replaced by a spicy multicultural salad bowl.

The polarizing mechanisms of globalization have racial, ethnic and cultural implications. Far from being random phenomena, inclusion and exclusion are linked to historically generated processes of ethnic and racial construction and differentiation; and the globally excluded, the persistently poor, the hungry, the sick (over half the world’s population, by United Nations estimates), are also the victims of discrimination on ethnic, racial and cultural grounds. Is not the poverty in the South amidst a world of plenty in the North a form of racism? Is not the destruction of viable and vibrant local communities and ecosystems due to the needs of capitalist accumulation a particularly severe form of discrimination? Is not the creation of fortresses of prosperity surrounded by worlds of misery and despair an extreme instance of intolerance and exclusion? Indeed, structural racism is the overall framework on which other expressions of racist and ethnic discrimination now hang.

As economic and social transactions between distinct communities and groups continue to be “racialized” in so many societies, the concept of race becomes socially relevant and racism must be seen as part of a system of power relations between racialized actors, including not only individuals, but also institutions, the state and the global economy.

Blaming the “system” in the abstract, however, is not a very constructive way of dealing with the issues; it leads to the old—rather ineffective—approach of saying “we cannot do anything unless the system changes”. But who will change the system, and how? While global approaches are necessary, national- and local-level policies continue to be essential.

Identity and identification, dignity and diversity, power and politics, rights and resources: these are some of the contested spaces in the struggle against discrimination and racism in our post-colonial, globalized world. How well we will be able to deal with them is one of the major challenges of this new century. Increasingly there is talk of interculturality rather than multiculturalism per se. This would not deny cultural diversity among groups, but rather strengthen it through flexible structures of governance that are not culturally bound to any particular model of the “nation state”. How the idea of interculturality will play out in the fields of education, communication, social control, cultural creativity, administration of justice, political representation and so forth is still an open question. But the debate has begun.

Rodolfo Stavenhagen is a Professor of Sociology at El Colegio de México and the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.