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Using Legislation to Fight Racial Discrimination

1 Sep 2011

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The following are excerpts from an interview with Manuel Góngora, who is a Visiting Research Fellow at UNRISD. Manuel is a postdoctoral researcher at the Latin American Institute of the Free University of Berlin. He is part of an interdisciplinary research network on social inequalities in Latin America called desiguALdades.net. He is currently studying affirmative action against racial discrimination in Latin America.

Manuel, your studies describe racial inequalities as being “transregionally interdependent”, which can create a “game of boomerangs”. Would you like to elaborate on this?

Manuel Góngora: Racial inequalities have been always transregionally interconnected. The concept of race was formulated in the 17th century to rationalize the new global order arising from the transregional interactions of large numbers of populations from Western Europe, Africa and the Americas. Currently, you can observe several inequalities that are interconnected on a global scale. There are actors with enough power to produce negative externalities against people living half a world away who are not able to protect themselves from these decisions. But sometimes it looks like a game of boomerangs: actors of one region create inequalities that affect another region, but such inequalities return to their point of origin in different forms.

There are several examples: extractive industries, poorly-negotiated free trade agreements and agriculture subsidies in the United States or the European Union impoverish rural workers in Africa or Latin America and aggravate domestic sociopolitical conflicts. Consequently, and in the absence of adequate social policies for their protection, the incentives of international migration for economic and political reasons increase. In turn, social inequalities between groups in the receiving countries are exacerbated due to the criminalization of migrants, their exclusion from the privileges of citizenship and the racialization of their labour markets. At some point, the social systems of the receiving countries are not able to sustain larger numbers of refugees and immigrants, creating socioeconomic conflicts between groups, favouring the strengthening of far-right political forces, and extending the incidence of ethnic violence. The boomerang comes back.

According to your research, national and international laws may reproduce racial discrimination instead of countering it. What examples can be found in Latin America?

Manuel Góngora: I am not arguing that these laws are intentionally discriminatory, but certain provisions may have predictable racial discriminatory effects, so the racial and ethnic component should not be ignored.

Take as illustration the transnational extractive industries in Colombia. An astonishing amount of national provisions tend to protect and assure the rights of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, including the collective right to land. However, these provisions are threatened with other regulations that rather protect the interests of transnational corporations in case of conflict with collective rights of ethnic groups. The 2001 Mining Law was enacted to make the domestic legislation more “investor friendly”, granting generous conditions to transnational extractive industries interested in Colombia.

Transnational corporations also enjoy the advantages of the tax legislation. Not to mention that in many cases the national authorities have been reluctant to enforce the strict environmental regulations against foreign firms. In several cases, the arrival of large-scale industries has produced an increased presence of armed groups, the escalation of violence and forced displacement in these areas, whose victims are predominantly members of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities that have worked in these mines since colonial times. Take also into account the consequences in different socioecological dimensions, in terms public health, contamination or destruction of water sources, etc.

The ethnoracial element in this global problematic can not be ignored: this kind of plunder would be unthinkable in the Swiss Alps, even if the Matterhorn would be full of gold; but in the Andes, it is possible to take advantage of the vulnerability of historically disadvantaged peoples who are economic and politically defenceless.

Can conventional state-centred instruments, such as regulations to protect targeted groups, counter racial inequalities in a globalized world?

Manuel Góngora: National legislation and policies remain a primary response against racial inequalities, but domestic action should be articulated in global terms, because the challenges are beyond the reach of national social policies. We have to stop - on both sides - the forces that keep the boomerang flying. The North and the South must work together if they want to stop the accentuation of global inequalities; otherwise, any domestic attempt to reduce racial inequalities will be not enough, as the actors involved are not circumscribed by the limits of the state.

What new legal instruments can be implemented to combat racial inequalities?

Manuel Góngora: In the paper I finished at UNRISD I presented some initiatives discussed in this regard. For inequalities related with international trade we should think on a binding international treaty that clearly defines the extraterritorial human rights obligations of the several actors involved in transregional inequalities, as some global NGOs are promoting. For inequalities related with international migration, the ratification of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers is crucial. Several reforms in the current legislations are also required, particularly in the rules for accessing to citizenship and nationality, and in the homologation of academic degrees. Regarding inequalities in the global labour market, we must discuss more seriously the national implementation of the global social protection floors, that is, on minimum social standards below which no country is allowed to fall. And in order to combat directly race-based inequalities, we should think about the implementation of affirmative action at the domestic level.

What progress has been made on this in Latin America?

Manuel Góngora: Some Latin American governments, elected on an explicitly anti-neoliberal platform, have reinvigorated the national social systems and promoted new alternatives to combat, directly or indirectly, social segregation and racial inequalities, including policies of affirmative action and conditional cash transfer programs like Oportunidades in Mexico, Bolsa Familia in Brazil, or Familias en Acción in Colombia.

The Brazilian case is particularly interesting. Brazil has successfully combined large-scale social programmes that have particularly benefited the Black population with race-conscious measures in tertiary education, including thousands of scholarships granted to Black Brazilians. As a result, we can observe during the last years a significant reduction in inequality and poverty rates. But some evidence suggests that intra-ethnic inequalities may have risen and that racial quotas have reinforced inter-group antagonism in various universities.

UNRISD’s approach to social development emphasizes the concepts of social cohesion and inclusion. Why is this approach interesting for your research?

Manuel Góngora: In the 2010 Flagship Report, UNRISD concluded that affirmative action should be designed as part of a universal strategy against poverty, irrespective of race or ethnicity, but at the same time, it recognizes that universal programmes alone may not be enough to overcome ethnic inequalities. UNRISD suggests that a social policy targeting both ends of the distribution curve is the best starting point to combat poverty among disadvantaged groups and to correct ethnic inequalities; if affirmative action only targets those members of an ethnic group who are already in a better position, it may lead to a worsening of intragroup inequality and in the long term can hinder social cohesion.

Moreover, UNRISD properly highlights the imperative of political inclusion in order to correct ethnic inequalities, taking into account that the potential beneficiaries have to deal with precarious support in electoral terms that affirmative measures can produce and the unpopularity of cuts for the privileged group. Thus, the question is not "if", but "how best" affirmative action can be implemented. Universal policies and race-conscious measures are not necessarily mutually exclusive alternatives; rather, they can be combined according to the particular conditions of each country. I consider that this is a very useful approach for scholars and policy makers dealing with racial inequalities throughout the world.

Thank you, Manuel , for your time. For UNRISD, this is Suroor Alikhan in Geneva.

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