Letter from Santiago

Alan Jenkins

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

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

Jenkins is a deputy director for Human Rights and International Cooperation at
the Ford Foundation.