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Monday, 3 September, 2001, 11:48 GMT 12:48 UK
Can we ever eradicate racism?
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The United Nations World Conference Against Racism has opened in the South African port of Durban amid disputes over the final document.
Divisions over Zionism, reparations for slavery and other issues seem insurmountable, and the United States, Canada and Israel have refused to send high level delegations.
The wider purpose of the conference, finding ways to combat prejudice and intolerance, risks being lost in the political wrangling.
Commentators say the final declaration of the summit will simply be the lowest common denominator of everyone's expectations.
But can anything be done against racism? Can prejudice ever be eliminated? Or is it part of human nature to fear and reject those who are different? Can this conference hope to achieve anything concrete?
Harry Belafonte, singer and activist, discussed these issues from Durban in a Talking Point phone-in programme broadcast on BBC World Service Radio and BBC News Online. Add to the debate.
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
Simon Morgan, East Grinstead, England
How tragic that a so-called anti-racism conference, with so much potential for good, has itself become a tool for racists to incite hatred and disunity. But how predictable, if you consider that some of the perpetrators of the worst abuses of human rights have been allowed the loudest voice at this conference. This summit is a disgrace and the UN should now be taking steps to end it.
This conference seems to be a
quagmire of double standards,
where political interests have
overshadowed the basic issues.
Henry Khiat, Singapore
Judging by the comments - NO.
I have worked in many countries in my life and generally I find that where white racism stops black/ Asian racism starts. Let's get real and really try and combat this problem.
This summit is a great way to start to solve some of the problems we face with racism. When the US, Canada, and Israel trivialise such a world gathering, the condescending attitude tells you which countries refuse to face the facts the other people see clearly!
Indeed as a number of nations have already expressed, future conferences need to be more targeted, and include the people more affected by the particular aspect of racism. It has political, economic, social and cultural variations and implications.
Geoffrey Wadulo, Uganda
Yes, we only can eradicate racism by awareness conference like this. Some racist countries carry out killings of it own citizens by using the latest air power and imposing embargo, even for medicines to the infants within the country. These conferences are very welcome and to raise the voice for the peoples, living under many difficulties
I am would like to stress that the views of one school of thought about the equating casteism in India to racism is totally out of context. People are categorised in one form or the other; this is a way of life and we have to live with it. What is being done now is that people with vested interests have successfully hijacked the issue and misused it to their narrow political gains.
Ultimately racism (as indeed all prejudice) is about fear, fear of the other, fear of difference. Perhaps a good starting point for Durban is to highlight the celebration of diversity and how each of us become better persons when we are exposed to others and the contribution they make to our lives.
So Zionism = racism is controversial?
The fact is that the founding of the State of Israel was based on the forced expulsion of Palestinians - the majority of whose grandchildren still live in the refugee camps from 1947. This was a form of ethnic cleansing, plain and simple.
In fact, the UN used to recognise Zionism as being a form of racism until 1991. With the continued building of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories (and destruction of Palestinian homes), has anything really changed since 1947?
Multi-ethnic by all means, but multi-culture is not possible in the long term. America works because it is has a common culture - or at least has had until recently. Mutli-culturism cannot work in the long term and leads to conflict.
However, racism comes from upbringing and education. When a person is taught from childhood that their country and heritage is the best they start to look down upon others. Education is where we must start to address the issue and ensure that governments ARE involved and not left on the sidelines in international forums.
All too often racism is apparent and inherent in both sides of the argument,
the defendant party committing racist acts and, consequently, the plaintiff
party complaining. The differences in our cultures build part of our colourful
human heritage, but at the same time they are the source of so much hate and
Racism, in my opinion, is inevitable. One day we may evolve past this ugly human characteristic. In the meantime, we need to learn to be good individuals and if we all do that, we'll someday get a peaceful planet.
Whatever happened to the problems in Rwanda, Tibet, the Balkans, the Kurds etc. The UN is far too politicised to contribute positively to such an important debate.
Isaac Garson, Gibraltar
Different nationalities bring different strengths to the global forum, and these differences should be recognised and applauded. Alas, the anti-racism campaigners want a homogenous, sterile, world, in which recognition of differences between peoples is condemned.
Unfortunately there will always be racists in our society. Just in the same way that pain and suffering will always exist in the world.
You can't, sadly, irradiate racism, but what you can do is limit it.
- all the countries are just keen to stress the racist side of the other, but rarely admits its own mistakes, for example the Arab nations.
- Racism can't be fought by some declaration that is purely symbolic.
Alternative: send a hundred kids of every country in this world to Durban and let them send the message, without any politics. This racism conference is purely a means for many countries to get even with the past.
Racism is but a symptom of a much deeper problem. That of the ever increasing human population on this planet. As we become more overcrowded people will look to defend their territory, whether it be their personal space or their country.
We cannot look at each individual country and point fingers at their problems, if anything is going to be done about racism, we've got to look closer to home.
Racism can't be solved over the short term since it has so many roots, so we're going to have to sit there like a meeting of AA and say "yes, we have a problem", and that means ALL OF US.
England can take a look at itself and acknowledge our current problems in Bradford.. the maw of the beast has shown its ugly head there, and I don't think it will be the last we see of it either...
It's a shame to say that racism is rife in such a modern and progressive world, but it is, UN members should take the first step to eradicate the beast and TALK.
He who doesn't care about his past has no future. Racism is the most shameful and most wicked act of an animal called Man. Slavery is racism, colonialism is racism etc, there is racism of any type in every nation on earth even in Nigeria where I come from. So it is in the interest of mankind to find a lasting solution to this ugly and disgusting trend if not we should all brace up to welcome the worst.
We should learn from the evils of slavery, colonialism and the part that Adolf Hitler and Germany played in the history of mankind and agree if we should make a change or allow racism to continue. A stitch in time saves nine.
As an American, I don't understand how we can refuse to talk about an issue that a significant portion of the world wants to discuss, and still call ourselves global leaders.
I imagine I am probably a small voice in the US, but there are at least some of us who are ashamed about our government's actions.
And to my white brothers of European descent, the question, in my opinion, is not whether or not we are to blame for the enslavement of Africans, the question is can we help to rectify the injustice that has been done.
As for Zionism and anti-Semitism: why can't we talk about both?
It is good that some people in the world had the heart to sit in a fully airconditioned room and discuss the misery of the world and the implications of racism and colonialism.
But how far will this affect the billions of people out there in the world who have suffering from poverty and neglect. Isn't it possible for the rich of the world to spare just a little bit of their affluence for the poor people. Isn't it possible for the whole humanity to live in peace and with happiness.
These questions need answers right away before it is too late.
Steve, London, England
In tackling racism, one of the first tasks must be to disband all organisations that have been set up to deal with racism! It's very ironic that these organisations, by their very existence, instill a culture of intolerance amongst the society they exist in! Remove them, and the people will see injustice in their own minds, not enforced by a group of self-appointed judges.
By approaching the conference with an 'it's all a waste of time' point of view we give credence to those who have chosen to shirk their responsiblities as active participants of global society.
When the time comes for those to face up to the action taken today it is vital that we have on record their actions of the past - although not successful in the sense of its original intent; it has laid bare skeletons from the closet of current and past superpowers and for that alone it has been a success.
Progress can only be
achieved if we have within us
the capacity to forgive. Let us
move forward that the past is
not repeated. Racial divide is
deeply entrenched within us, but
that should not stop us from
seeking plausible means to end this
this crisis, or at least minimise it.
Blaming "whites" for the past is no help and claiming "blacks" want it all now is no help. We must work together as a single body of human beings.
I have been involved in the UN system for the past two years, as a professional staff member. In sheer logic, I argue that the UN system must first try to clear its own stance before acting "nice and concerned" about racism.
I argue that if the conference would help change the mentality of the staff members from the developed world towards those working in the system from developing countries, it would be a "job well accomplished".
Here things clearly work for those
from developed countries but
very seldom for those from the developing countries.
I hope that the outcomes or the conference
would first be internalised within
I don't think any UN conference or whatever has any impact on the world issues any more. It's the US that controls, or should I say bosses about the UN officials and uses them to oppress other countries.
Back to the point, racism is a major issue and I think it should be the individual nations that face this problem, take actions of integration to tackle this problem. Can I mention that educating people should be the priority to elimenate racism from people's minds.
Reading the comments posted here I notice a repeated occurrence, that some of the people defending obvious racism do so by trying to say that the accusers are somehow guilty of their own racism, and thus their opinion doesn't matter. This is happening a lot with critics of Zionism being told that people like the Taleban are worse, and so no one should complain about Israel.
Criticising Zionism does not necessarily mean that you are anti-Semitic nor does it mean that it does mean that one supports the Taleban. This response is an obvious attempt to avoid answering criticism, and to sidetrack the debate.
On a broader note, this conference will fall short in its goals. Racism and capitalism are good friends, dependant on one another. As long as we have one, we have the other. Anything between now and the death of capitalism in the name of abolishing racism is called tokenism.
There have been so many wrongs done by those who are staying away, the conference won't make any difference to them any way because they control the way the world body (UN) operates. These things are never going to change.
When will the UN ever make a decision that will affect them. In fact it is the wrongdoers that make the UN and if they feel that Zionism, racism, and oppression of people whose ideals are different from theirs are right, who is going to say it's wrong?
In the evolution of human society one form of domination has simply been replaced by another form, for example, replacement of territorial colonialism by industrial colonialism. The real power never came to people. Practice of democracy is in the framework of domination. This is why the UNO appears helpless and paralysed.
The dominant power may cynically rejoice in its helplessness today, but time will come when the real power would belong to people. The UNO would ultimately win.
Will the conference be addressing white victims of racism? Probably not. The UK is riddled with anti-white racism, which of course never makes the headlines, does it?
Tim Kuhnert, Paderborn, Germany
Unlike the opinions expressed here, the conference on racism is based on historical, political, and cultural facts. Many scholars and professionals are involved, thus it is a new historical cornerstone on the issue of racism. Being absent or present doesn't make a difference except for pointing out those who are deeply immersed in wrongdoings and are shy to come. Some of them can't afford not to come yet they are "present while being absent".
What a waste of time. Racism is a major issue, but talking about it won't do any good. What possible reason is there to talk about slavery. etc? It was a terrible crime but at the same time, as a white European, I don't see why I should be made to feel responsible, I was born in 1976. How can any of the things which happened before I was born be my fault?
A racism conference will never resolve the problems of racism in the world. These ideas have to be eradicated from the very root. Differences are continually being highlighted in society. The very word tolerance implies 'accepting that someone is DIFFERENT'. Racism will not go away until the very societies in which we live are reformed. People should be taught to unite on the values that they hold about life.
If this conference does anything useful, it should be to at least start the process which will lead to a world-wide treaty on discrimination. That treaty would not be ratified by many of the world's nations, but it would give us something to work towards. Our social evolution has been far outpaced by our technological development. If we had an ideal to work towards, that would bring us a whole lot closer to being able to live together.
We must not become one people, with one set of ideologies. Instead, we need to treasure our differences without hating those from different backgrounds or ethnicities. Our differences are what make us human, what make us individuals. We just need to realise, that while we are all different, we also have a great deal in common with one another.
Zwelithani Mobuza, New York, USA
Why is it that the Americans have so much problem facing up to the fact that racism is rife in America? Europe has the same problems, but I don't see the Europeans denying it! Maybe that is why the Americans aren't going to the conference - they think that they are not involved. I say the first step is acknowledging there is a problem, like those who are going to the conference!
Let's really look at what this meeting in Durban, South Africa is all about. It is all about the Arabs' intolerance of Israel and the Jewish people. So a summit supposedly against racism has turned into a summit that is anti-Semitic. And it is all about how much money third world countries (which are basically anti-American) can get from the United States and Canada. This summit is not about racism at all. Let's talk about how Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds in his country, or how black people kill each other in Africa or the caste system in India. Now those are real problems, not Israel which is the only real democracy in the Middle East.
Racism suffers from too backward-looking a philosophy that ultimately will continue to separate the peoples of the world. It is how we treat those around us, today, that matters. Trying to use racism to derive power through accusation will never achieve the goal of bringing the races together.
Daniel, Chicago, USA
When one mixes races because of political correctness, there will invariably be long-term trouble. It is a moot point why this is so, history is proof that it does happen. Why don't we learn from history, or from countries that are experiencing these problems right now. Not everyone in society is "good" so their is no solution other then NOT to mix races in a country. Racism is Australia is on the rise because of the many criminal elements let in from Asia. The media stokes racism by denying the feelings of the man in the street on this issue.
I see that George Milton of Washington USA says another meaningless gathering of politicians to wring their hands and to point fingers at everyone else and to try and take the spot light off the crappy job their are doing in their own country! This little exercise has cost the South African taxpayer a lot of money that could have been put to better use - like building homes for those that live in shacks! But NO the politicians want to show off by throwing taxpayers' money away, by the millions!
In reply to John Black of Nigeria, more black political opponents of Mugabe are being killed than white farmers and yet there has been very little coverage of this in most of the UK press. All such killings are abhorrent. As for the conference it is a pity that its worthy aims are being undermined by several nations who will not face up to their own problems or those of their allies.
I have worked in a country governed by Islamic law and I would like to mention that was indeed lots of racism.
The workers from Asia were treated in a very bad way whereas westerns very treated very well. This included living conditions and remuneration.
Now the same Arab nations are voicing their opinion as they are at the receiving end Israel
I wonder if this UN racism conference will have any impact on racism. In fact does any of the UN conferences have any significance?
Surely, only good can come out of this if it is approached
in a sensible way. We must look forward, starting with a clean sheet
rather than become obsessed with the past. No one should be held
responsible for the actions of their forefathers. If so, than as a Briton, may I claim reparations from the Romans, Normans, Vikings etc who invaded and plundered the UK, just as we did later on in the rest of the world?
Then these governments wonder why we as ethnic minorities feel they are patronising us by saying words like equality, when they are still in a phase of self denial. By formally apologising and making atonements for past colonialisations, will there really be any real step to progress? Until then super bullies (super powers) continue to pay lipservice to freedom, justice and equality.
I am at a loss to understand, however, why the agenda of this particular event should have left the door open for certain nations to 'boycott' it on some principle. Rather, for the sake of the greater cause of eliminating racism per se, all such protests should have been brought to the discussion table, while oversized egos, self-interest or the insistence on a given opinion should be strongly censured.
We should all commend the captain of the Norwegian vessel who rescued those stranded passengers near Christmas Island. Well done! Now we should ask the true inheritors of the Australians - the Aborigines - if they can land on their land on humanitarian grounds.
Racism is alive and well, pretty much everywhere. Integration will occur and progress will be made. But there will be violence and turbulence and misery over the next few generations, as the world slowly adjusts to the fact a human is a human. Our DNA says so, regardless of learned social behaviours and doctrines. Those things were tribal, and we are in the process of finding out this animal belongs to one huge family.
The task of educating the world to the facts as they exist must be exploited to the fullest, so that all the upheavals to come will be minimalised as much as possible. God bless those attending the conference. Take a newspaper to the back of the heads of those who won't, especially the USA. It needs a wake up call.
None of us alive today, nor any of our children, will see the benefits that might come out of this one meeting. But it is a page in the text of human growth, at the beginning of a very long book.
Fermin F. Torres, New Mexico USA
Let's see - the US sends more black citizens through college than any other country does through high school. The two highest ranking cabinet members are of African descent, but the US is still inherently racist? Come on! Of course there are racists in the US, where aren't there any? Those countries that point a finger at the US should however make sure their own house is clean. Xenophobia is rampant in Europe, people are afraid of "losing their culture" to new immigrants, so immigration is tightly controlled (or it will be until Europe's declining population makes it a necessity). This isn't racist of course, or is it? What about religious intolerance, which we would just need to visit any number of Middle Eastern countries to witness on a grand and brutal scale.
This summit will accomplish nothing, hearts of men are not changed at summits chaired by bureaucracies. The masses may be temporarily distracted by the words of demagogues who speak there though.
I am from India. I have seen what is casteism there. About half of the population knows that it is bad. As a beneficiary of affirmative action, which has no parallel in the world, I cannot understand how this UN conference will have any impact on casteism in India. I am married to an upper caste woman. Had our parents put a block, I wonder, how would an UN resolution come to my rescue! The UN meeting is a waste if they discuss India. Here in the US too, I wonder what UN resolutions will have an impact on the common people. The UN can do better things like human rights, instead of addressing a problem that is unique in every country. To me, growth in the economy of all nations will have a better impact than in spelling a word and adding a phrase in a resolution.
Vik, Omaha, Nebraska, USA
Shame on the United states for the stand they are taking on the Israeli issue regarding this conference. How dare the US pull out of such an important and globally significant meeting. This shows the US to be weak in resolve and too timid to take a major stand against Israel.
As a non-religious gay white male Afrikaner I paid for my own education and recently acquired a small farm in South Africa with life savings. A poor
black family (backed by government officials) intimidated me and let their cattle graze on the property against my will. As a gay man I have often been unwelcome and my stance on religion urged my Afrikaans grandfather
to disinherit me. But I am not complaining, just saying that there certainly is a lot to talk about at conference in Durban. However, I believe spiritual poverty is the cause,
racism only the effect behind the choices not only politicians but entire nations make in an ever more 'globalised' world.
As a victim of racism and former political refugee it shocks me to read that some people put prestige ahead of equality. Shame on Mr Powell - who's side is he on anyway? - and the Indian government for not wanting to discuss racism/casteism.
Handa Siangonya, Indianapolis, USA
Country(ies)that oppose to the UN Conference on Racism are simply hiding from the shame of their past ,present and future racial intolerance. Shame on them again.
William Shi, Australia
Once again the Bush Administration shows the world that it is indifferent and contemptuous of any point of view that might disagree with its own.
How can Colin Powell work for such a regime and still maintain his integrity?
As a proud Hindu and an Indian, I find it extremely offensive that casteism can be compared with racism. My society and culture is the oldest advanced civilisation in the world and I am appalled that our beliefs can be insulted and degraded in this way. Our caste system does not encourage racist behaviour. It is only a small minority that abuse their high rank in the caste system. As a member of the Hindu upper cast, I feel I am being personally targeted despite the fact that I have never shown prejudice against any member of the lower caste. I judge people on their character and not social rank, and quite frankly I hope that the irresponsible people organising this pathetic 'Racism' conference are held accountable for their actions.
It is very beneficial indeed that such a conference will be taking place so long as positive action follows the discussions. Countries spend a considerable percentage of their GNP on arms and defence, so why not put away the thrift and create teams of constitutional lawyers and educationalists who can thrash out the problem and start off on an aggressive thrust all over the world to change the incumbent mentality.
Racism is the underlying reason for the holocaust, the Rwandan massacre, the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, the caste system in India, the Irish conflict, and most of all the slave trade. Mr Colin Powell, if you would affect any change, this is your opportunity. This conference and its mandate identifies with you the most. Martin Luther had a dream for racial equality in the world, and sacrificed his life for it so that that dream can be realised. What is your dream? To protect your job in the WHITE house?
Srinivas Rangaraj, Windsor, Canada
The UN conference on racism has given the US the opportunity to show its complete and total babying of Israel again. Instead of attending and discussing the subject at hand the US has decided to do the childish thing and not go at all if it doesn't get its way right off the bat. Racism is real in Israel. It has long been known that a Palestinian life is not worth as much as an Israeli's in certain places.
This is not anti-semitism, it is a glimpse into reality.
Those Muslims and Arabs who are comparing Israel to Nazism and accusing Israel of being racist should just keep quite. They are the worst of racists in the world. Islam is the most intolerant religion in the world. Just look at the Taleban in Afganistan. Many Arab and Islamic countries do not allow Christian religions to be represented in their lands. They should stop their hypocrisy and blindness.
The West should examine why it gets so upset when issues of Zionism and slavery are brought to the table. Western nations would have much preferred a conference that gave the appearance of doing something without even touching on real issues. The fact that the US is boycotting the event only demonstrates what we already know: the US government is racist.
Chaacha Mwita, St Gallen, Switzerland
I'm inclined to think that anything the UN sets out to do is a prima facie lost cause.
Mark Pillai, Durban, South Africa
Seems like the left-wingers of the world needed a new cause. For instance, the so called lower caste people in India want to equate caste with racism. While I do not argue with the history of discrimination, not a word is said about the constitutional privileges they receive in India in terms of quotas in educational institutions, government jobs and parliament. The real question should be, why have 50 years of these policies failed to produce any results? That should be the topic for discussion.
Racism is ingrained in the minds of people by their upbringing, society and situation. Many racists don't even realise that their pursuits are meaningless. Politicians have always covertly fostered racism to further their ends. In India, the issue of caste is being kept alive by politicians, though in reality the common man has no time for such pursuits. It is the wastrels of society who sway to the tunes of these politicians and keep it alive. Any person with a proper vocation will not have time for such nonsense. In this scenario it is ironical that these very people are claiming to find a solution to this problem. Shun the politicians.
Fabrice, Munich, Germany
What about racism against white people? Look at Zimbabwe where the white farmers are killed. If they were blacks, all the blacks around the world have cried "the racist regime is killing our brothers!"
But do the non-white races respect the white race as equals? I don't think so.
Why doesn't the UN concentrate on a few other things while they're at it.
Paul Thomas, UK
Rustam Roy, London, England
The UN conference on racism is a good attempt on an age old important issue that is threatening to tear the modern world apart. The anarchy and civil wars that are threatening the world today because of racism will very soon bring the progress of mankind to a halt.
Darren Oldfield, London, UK
Suppose they gave a conference and nobody came? I agree with George Milton. This forum has become marginalised. In typical US fashion, Colin Powell has elected to boycott a conference that needs his presence, in order to make a point to the Palestinians about Zionism.
Well done Colin! You could have been an effective presence at a conference the world needs desperately. There is a lot more to racism than bickering over agendas. Since he isn't going to the World Conference on Racism in Durban, I suggest Mr. Powell use the time to visit other parts of Africa, starting with Zimbabwe.
I'm amused by those 'thinkers' who want to solve the problem of racism. This conference is just a subversive attempt to divert attention from real issues like economic inequality and corporate domination of the world.
Wanzusi, Mississauga, Canada
What a farce!
Another meaningless gathering of politicians
to wring their hands in moral disgust while attacking
their political opponents. Such forums have been
marginalised through their transparent abuse.
27 Jul 01 | Middle East
Zionism issue threatens summit
30 Mar 01 | Americas
Annan appeal for unity against racism
16 Aug 01 | South Asia
India rejects caste 'racism' debate
11 Aug 01 | Americas
Slavery row dogs racism conference
01 May 00 | Europe
UN links globalisation to racism
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