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Multilateral North South Reports: Racism, Xenophobia and Public Policy

1 Sep 2001

Social Development Review, September 2001, Vol. 5, No. 3; ISSN 1026-3950
by Yusuf Bangura, UNRISD

World leaders and other public figures will gather in Durban, South Africa, for the third World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance from 31 August to 7 September 2001. They will examine progress made in the fight against racism since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related conventions and resolutions; discuss ways of improving the application of existing standards and instruments to combat racism; review the social, economic, political, cultural and historical factors that drive racism and racial discrimination; and recommend effective measures at the national, regional and international level for combating racism, xenophobia and intolerance.

While the preparatory meetings for the world conference have exposed sharp differences among countries and groups on some of the core agenda items, they have simultaneously underscored the need to understand racial cleavages and discrimination in formulating development policies. Drawing on some of the papers that have been prepared for the parallel UNRISD conference on Racism and Public Policy scheduled for 3 –5 September, I address two main issues in this paper: how the construction of race and racism affects social solidarity and citizenship; and the impact of public policies on race relations.

The social construction of race and citizenship

Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance are worldwide problems. They affect social relations, influence structures of opportunity and life chances of individuals. They provoke violence and wars. Slavery, colonialism, genocide, the Holocaust and apartheid represent the most extreme forms of racism; but other overt and subtle forms of racism persist to this day. Furthermore, the legacy of institutionalized racism continues to weigh heavily on the development prospects of many groups and countries, influence prospects for social integration and accommodation, and affect the efficacy of public policies for promoting equality, justice and social development.

Race is socially constructed, not biologically determined. The practice of classifying humans according to distinct races has been discredited by genetic research. However, physical differences structure perceptions and constitute a significant source of prejudice in social relations. Racial ideas may influence discourses on integration, encourage insular or xenophobic practices, and distort perceptions about rights and citizenship.

In the United States, as George Fredrickson and Manning Marable remind us, commitment towards universal human rights coexisted with a strong historical tendency to exclude non-white groups from citizenship. Despite the proscription of racial discrimination by the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, structural inequality associated with race persists. A substantially higher proportion of blacks than whites are likely to be unemployed, imprisoned, in poverty or destitute. More than 1.2 million African-Americans reside in US prisons. Of the 4.3 million Americans who have lost the right to vote 1.7 million are black. Although African-Americans constitute only 14 percent of all illegal drug users, they account for 35 percent of all drug-related arrests, 55 percent of convictions, and 75 percent of all Americans imprisoned or jailed for drug crimes. Sheldon Danziger and his coleagues point out that although the official poverty rate declined during the boom years of the 1990s from 15.1 percent in 1993 to 11.8 percent in 1999, its effects were unevenly felt by racial groups: in 1999, this rate was 23.6 percent for African-Americans and 22.8 percent for Hispanics, but only 7.7 percent for non-Hispanic whites.

South Africa is comparable to the United States in terms of its historical commitment to institutionalized racism. Bernard Magubane points out that racism in South Africa is associated with the quest for raw materials and the settlement of Europe’s social outcasts. Before apartheid, the subjugation of the African population took two forms: slavery and peonage. Laws devised for indentured white immigrants, free “coloured” workers and emancipated African slaves provided the backdrop for South Africa’s notorious master and servant laws, which from 1910 were transformed into segregatory laws, and from 1948 into apartheid, effectively denying the African population citizenship rights. The 1994 constitution and the new Government of National Unity proscribed apartheid, upheld universal citizenship for all South Africans, and committed itself to both racial and gender equality. However, as Renosi Mokate points out, sixty-five percent of Africans still live below the poverty line. The average annual income of African-headed households is R23, 000, compared to R32, 000 for coloured-headed households, R71, 000 for Indian-headed households and R103, 000 for white-headed households.

Racial discrimination has not always thrived only in societies with laws, policies and practices that classify individuals according to biological differences. In Peru and other parts of Latin America, as Marisol de la Cadena shows, nation-builders rejected biological determinism and produced a notion of race based on morality and reason to defend social hierarchies. In this framework, education was vested with the power to dissolve differences based on physical appearances. It gave rise to what has been referred to as silent racism, since the bulk of the non-white indigenous population remained excluded from the transformatory benefits of education.

In South Asia, as Vijay Prashad informs us, caste, which is also not based on physical appearances, is derived from ancient practices associated with occupations, marriage bonds, dietary habits and religious customs. It constitutes a significant source of discrimination, which by many accounts is comparable to social practices under apartheid South Africa and racial segregation in the southern United States. The Dalits, or Untouchables, could “touch” most things owned by the dominant jati or ruling groups if their labour was required, but when they worked for themselves their touch was regarded by the jatis as social pollution. Caste discrimination has been outlawed in India and, as in the United States and South Africa, affirmative action policies exist to help Dalits bridge the socio-economic gap. However, the enforcement of laws is lax and discrimination, intolerance and caste-related violence persist.

Another issue of relevance to discussions of race and citizenship is migration. Globalization is 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. Jeroen Doomernik reports that there have been three broad types of European responses to immigration. The first stresses the importance of equality before the law for both legal long-term 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. This is the multicultural approach. 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.

In Western Europe, a new form of exclusionary populism, exemplified by right-wing political parties and movements, poses a threat to that region’s democratic and liberal order. Hans-Georg Betz argues that these parties rely on charismatic leadership, political marketing with a pronounced customer or voter orientation, and mobilization of popular anxieties, prejudices and resentments. They advocate a comprehensive programme of social change, which includes strong hostility towards foreigners and multiculturalism, as well as other issues relating to national identity, which tend to vary according to country experiences. The electoral base of these parties encompasses several groups, although young male voters with low to medium education tend to predominate. Far-right parties have been included in governing coalitions in Austria and Italy.

A related issue is the fate of migrant workers in oil-rich countries of the Middle East. The Middle East, as Ray Jureidini reports, has experienced massive waves of immigrants engaged in short-term work – from household helps to highly qualified professionals. The migration of cheap Asian and African workers has produced a racialized secondary labour market in that region. These workers are associated with the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs, which nationals refuse to do despite widespread poverty and unemployment. A central feature of the contract that underpins labour recruitment for these jobs is its bondage character: workers are not free to access local labour markets without state approval, and are attached to a sponsor for the duration of the contract. Conditions of slavery pertain to many female live-in domestic workers: threats of violence, restriction of movement, exploitative working conditions and widespread abuse.

The impact of public policies on race relations

A number of policies exist for tackling racism, racial prejudice, discrimination, xenophobia and inequalities. Public policies 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 to assist excluded groups to get out of poverty and exploit 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, which makes it difficult to predict their overall effects on social change or draw universal lessons that may be applicable to all situations.

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 the 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. As Ralph Premdas points out, at the core of these reforms is ‘recognition’: the need to accord juridical and social equality to all communities, including promotion of their languages in relevant educational institutions and public places. Linguistic rights, Neville Alexander affirms, are inalienable human rights.

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. Benjamin Bowling and his colleagues discuss these abuses, which include excessive use of force, torture and racist language against people they perceive as different. Measures to eliminate abuse of power from police work may include creation of a police force that reflects the racial diversity of the communities served; promotion of equality of opportunity and equality of service; establishment of structures that will aid legal, political and community accountability; introduction of civilian oversight and transparent and effective methods for handling complaints; development of ethnic minority staff networks; and innovative educational and training schemes.

Public policies that promote social justice are a fundamental requirement for achieving the goals of the World Conference. These include affirmative action policies and anti-poverty programmes. 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, South Africa, Malaysia and Brazil.

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. As Glenn Loury reports, the dominant ideology that drives opposition to affirmative action is liberal individualism, which espouses a policy of colour-blindness: the practice of not using race when carrying out a policy. Colour blindness should be distinguished from race-indifference: the practice of not considering how a chosen rule might impact various racial groups. Both can ameliorate or exacerbate the social disadvantage of blacks and other minorities. However, given the history of institutionalized racism in the US, Loury argues that the effects of race-blind or race-indifferent policies should be evaluated asymmetrically: those that harm blacks or minorities should be repudiated; those that assist blacks and minorities should be seen as necessary to the achievement of just social development. It may require a reordering of moral concerns: racial justice before race-blindness or race-indifference. It may also require rejection of the idea that racial equality has already been achieved. Racial discrimination and injustice, which spanned a period of about four hundred years, cannot be overcome in a few decades of implementing affirmative action policies.



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