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Letter from Santiago
Last month, a remarkable meeting took place in Santiago, Chile. Over 1,500 activists from throughout the Americas joined officials from the world's governments to discuss the enduring problems of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and immigrant status. The historic gathering was the Americas preparatory meeting for the upcoming World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance to be held by the UN this summer in Durban, South Africa. Along with analogous meetings in Asia, Africa, and Europe, the Santiago summit helped to shape the agenda and sharpen the issues for the larger Durban conference.
The Santiago gathering included Black, Indigenous, Latino, Asian, and immigrant civil rights leaders from countries as diverse as Brazil, Peru, Cuba, Canada, and the United States. They came to tell their stories and to demand respect for their basic human rights. On the third day, they spilled onto the Santiago streets, staging an unprecedented public call for racial justice.
Over the five-day session that began December 3, one powerful theme emerged: that nations in the region are in denial about the existence of racism and xenophobia within their borders. In Brazil, for example, the government long perpetuated the myth that, since the abolition of slavery, Brazil has enjoyed a period of racial equality and color blindness. But that idyllic picture flies in the face of Brazil's staggering racial inequality, including vast, predominantly black ghettos or favelas, widespread employment discrimination, police shootings of black street children, and other manifestations of embedded institutional racism against Afro-Brazilians. At the same time, Brazil's indigenous people continue to struggle against incursions on their land, contempt for their language and culture, and the derogation of their right to self-determination. While President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has made some meaningful attempts to acknowledge the country's racial problems, courts and other elements of Brazilian society continue to reject virtually all claims of discrimination by the nation's minority groups.
In neighboring Paraguay, people of African descent are so marginalized that much of the public is unaware that a black population even exists. Yet, sizable black communities continue to struggle against discrimination and exclusion. According to the London-based Minority Research Group, one such community, Cambacuà, was stripped of its land without compensation by successive Paraguayan presidents in the 1950s and 1960s, plunging the community into poverty and marginalization that continues today.
One of the crucial ways in which governments have managed to deny the existence of discrimination and inequality is by refusing to collect information about race and ethnicity in their national censuses and related research efforts. Accordingly, in Paraguay, Venezuela, and many other countries, it is impossible to answer basic questions about economic, educational, or political inequality based on race, because racial-identity questions are not asked.
Even where reliable information is available, political discourse in the region has often reinforced the principle of denial. While the political right in these countries has attributed the subordinate status of minorities and migrants to laziness, irresponsible behavior, or even pathological tendencies, the left has often argued that class inequality completely explains the subordinate position of racial minorities.
Sadly, public policy in the United States seems to be headed in a similar direction. During the design of our own national census, conservative politicians and commentators attacked the inclusion of racial questions as divisive and unnecessary. An increasing number of federal, state, and local policies have made it illegal or impractical to collect racial demographic data about alleged racial profiling, hate crimes, and other critical social issues. Those changes are advocated by conservative commentators like Dinesh D'Souza and Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, who argue openly that racial discrimination is no longer a problem, and by the U.S. Supreme Court's civil rights jurisprudence, which increasingly carries the same implicit message.
As we have learned tragically from the HIV/AIDS epidemic, a culture of denial soon becomes corrosive. Not only does it make preventive and remedial efforts impossible, but also it compounds the victim's pain and legitimizes her marginalization. It also makes structural change impossible. As the High Commissioner for Human Rights, former Irish President Mary Robinson, affirmed at the opening of the Santiago session, “the threshold measure of admitting [discrimination's] existence is primordial.”
NGO leaders did their part in Santiago to break the silence, highlighting cases of discrimination throughout the region and challenging governments to comply in word and deed with the international Covenant on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. They also began to form the bonds and develop the strategies that they will need to move the racial justice agenda forward in Durban and beyond.
The World Conference process presents a rare opportunity to elevate racial justice and the fair treatment of immigrants as international human rights issues and to build a global network of activists in defense of those principles. That will require unprecedented collaboration by activists and extraordinary pressure on the world's governments. But the good news from Santiago is that the human rights leaders of the Americas are up to the task. Z
Alan Jenkins is a deputy director for Human Rights and International Cooperation at the Ford Foundation.