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Statement delivered by UNRISD to the Commission on Human Rights, Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. Second Session, Geneva, 3-7 February 2003

7 Feb 2003



Racism and Public Policy

I would first like to thank you, Chairperson, and your team for extending an invitation to UNRISD to address this session of the Working Group of Experts on Peoples of African Descent. Two days ago my Director, Thandika Mkandawire, and I discussed with with members of the Expert Group ways in which the Institute could contribute to the work of the Group.

The issues the Working Group of Experts seeks to tackle resonate very well with the research programme of our Institute, even though we do not currently have a specific project on the subject of People of African Descent. Issues of identities, discrimination, inequalities, conflicts and well-being are central to UNRISD work, which focuses on the social dimensions of contemporary problems of development. The Institute’s research programme is not only multi-disciplinary in scope; its core value is driven by concerns for social justice, human rights, and balanced or sustainable development. The complex ways different groups and communities around the world experience socio-economic change and are affected by public policies constitute a central thrust in our approach to the study of development.

Under our research programme on “Identities, Conflict and Cohesion”, we have examined the links between ethnicity and development, ethnic diversity and public policies, political violence and social movements, post-conflict transitions, and the social reintegration of victims of armed conflicts.

UNRISD also contributed to the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Intolerance in 2001. The parallel conference we organized in Durban on the subject of Racism and Public Policy attracted more than 500 participants. For this conference, we invited 30 high level social scientists, historians and legal scholars from around the world to prepare papers and lead discussions. The conference addressed four broad issues: the social construction of race and citizenship; the social dynamics of racism and inequalities; organized responses to cultural diversity; and the impact of public policies on race relations.

I will highlight some of the main findings of the conference, the details of which can be found in the two publications: Conference News: Racism and Public Policy and UNRISD News, No. 25. And I will suggest issues that may need to be researched in order to advance the work of the Group.

Our studies found that some of the great advances that have been made in the field of citizenship are associated with efforts to roll back the pernicious frontiers of racism and incorporate previously excluded groups into the system of rights and obligations that define citizenship. Struggles for universal citizenship underscore the need to respect cultural diversity and its underlying values of tolerance, accommodation and solidarity. Papers on the United States and South Africa in particular provide detailed information on the history, dynamics and dehumanizing effects of institutionalised racism as well as how citizenship rights were won by victims who in the main were peoples of African descent. However, as the studies also show, formal equality has not led to social citizenship or equality. A substantially higher proportion of blacks or peoples of African descent in both countries are likely to be unemployed, poorly educated, imprisoned, in poverty or destitute. Data for other industrialized countries where peoples of African descent may be found may not be too different.

Second, our studies highlight the point that the fight against racism should incorporate issues of social justice and equitable governance. These, indeed, are a fundamental requirement for achieving stability and consolidating the values of citizenship. Our studies show, however, that reforms that seek to promote social justice and equitable governance often face great difficulties since they deal with issues of redistribution in the domains of wealth, income, social services and power. Sections of privileged groups tend to see them in zero-sum terms and may resist or undermine reforms, whereas beneficiaries may not be strong to defend them. An additional constraint is the conservative fiscal reforms that governments may be forced to pursue under the auspices of the Bretton Woods institutions or pressures from financial markets.

Governments, however, do have room for active redistributive policies. Our studies show that the content, application and outcomes of redistributive policies in ethno-racial societies vary according to whether the disadvantaged population constitutes the majority group, has attained formal citizenship long enough to defend it, and has strong access to policy making institutions; or whether beneficiaries are a minority with limited influence on government. Redistributive policies thus vary a lot in countries as different as the United States, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malaysia, Brazil or India.

I will now turn my attention to areas where I think work needs to be done. Research is required in the following areas if discrimination against peoples of African descent and their vulnerabilities are to be eliminated.

First, there is need for some data on the socio-economic characteristics of peoples of African descent. Much is known about the socio-economic status of African-Americans who belong to what may be described as the first group of people of African descent. This group boasts of powerful research centres and intellectuals who have studied these issues in great depth. There is a lot that this Working Group can learn from the research efforts and activities of African-Americans. However, there is much less empirical data on peoples of African descent in Canada and Latin America, who share a similar history of forced migration or slavery with African-Americans. Further down the line in terms of poor data on the socio-economic status of peoples of African descent are recent African immigrants in North America, Europe and elsewhere.

There is need to commission studies on the socio-economic status of these different groups if the work of the Commission on Human Rights and Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent is to be effective. Such a study should focus on three main areas: socio-economic – which will involve collecting data on private sector employment, the entertainment industry, sport, income and assets, educational attainment, health status, and housing; political – which will involve data collection on representation of peoples of African descent in the civil service, parliament, cabinet and political parties in countries they find themselves; security sector – data on their representation in the police, prisons and army as well as patterns of discrimination in the judicial system and immigration.
Key questions will be: How do peoples of African descent compare with the host or dominant community in these socio-economic and political indices over the years? How do they compare with other minority groups? In which sector have peoples of African descent made progress? In which areas have they lagged behind, and why? How have past policies contributed to differences in socio-economic outcomes? What policies are in place to correct inequalities, differential treatment and marginality? How successful are these policies?

Second, it may be necessary to commission a paper on racial profiling by the police, immigration and airport control officers as this is one area that affects all peoples of African descent irrespective of class or professional status.

Third, it would be useful also to commission a paper on the media, which plays a powerful role in shaping attitudes about minorities? How do the media report peoples of African descent? Is this group treated differently from the host community and other minorities? Are there policies and programmes in place to overcome prejudice in the media?

Finally, it is worth pointing out that peoples of African descent face different regimes of discrimination or accommodation across the world. The fate of this group as well as those of other minorities may depend on the traditions of citizenship embraced by host countries.

One of our Durban papers distinguishes between three broad types of European responses to migration. The first is the multicultural approach, which stresses equality before the law for both long-term legal residents and traditional citizens, and grants the former easy access to citizenship. It also acknowledges the ethnic origins of residents and, if they do not conflict with the principle of equality, supports the public display of such differences. The second is the republican ideal, which also stresses the principle of equality before the law for residents and citizens, but discourages the display of cultural practices that are different from the dominant native culture. The third type is the most exclusionary. It is founded on the old notion of nation state homogeneity in which only co-ethnics are entitled to citizenship. Holland, Anglo-Saxon societies, and Nordic countries are often associated with the first, France with the second, and Germany with the third. But the picture can be much more complex as societies may combine elements of all three in different proportions. It may be necessary to commission papers that examine how peoples of African descent fare under different regimes of citizenship and immigration.

I thank you again, Chairperson, for giving me the opportunity to address you. I wish you success in your work.

Statement delivered on 6 February 2003 by Yusuf Bangura, UNRISD Research Co-ordinator.