Race in the ‘Post Third World’

The UN becomes the flash point as groups vie for racismu2019s new meanings.

By Makani Themba-Nixon Sep 15, 2001

Their web page is red, black, and green. Their slogan: "It’s Racism!" They call themselves the Panthers–the Russian Panthers–and their group is among those organizations attending the UN Conference that are pushing the boundaries around race, racism, and racial justice work. It’s a long way from the historic Bandung Conference in 1955 where the world was officially divided into the white North and the colored South. There, we became "people of color" and members of the "third world" as part of an analysis grounded in a deep sense of solidarity and based on a shared experience of colonialism, racism, and conquest.

Stretching UN’s Big Tent

Race, though always a social construction and ever changing, will be up for some real stretching this summer at the World Conference Against Racism. In fact, the meeting’s full title, the World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, is just one indication of how big the tent will be. A significant push for the expansion came from Europe, where groups lobbied to ensure that ethnic cleansing and anti-Semitism made it in the mix. Groups working on Anti-Semitism united with those from Eastern Europe to form almost 80 percent of the region’s World Conference preparatory meeting participants. The net effect is the broadening of scope from that of the first two gatherings that had a shorter name–World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination.

In many ways, the themes and politics of this year’s conference are rooted in a bit of a pendulum swing from the heady days of Bandung. Then, solidarity and unity were paramount. Tensions and atrocities within the "third world" were often glossed over as vestiges of colonialism. Yet colonialism, though clearly critical to the analysis, was stretching thin as a way of explaining the bloody coups and "ethnic cleansings" that abided in the neo-colonial world. As a result, racism became racisms as we tried to make sense of its varied and complex transmutations.

In many ways, this "shift," as it’s manifesting at the World Conference, is essentially the de-emphasis of white supremacy and "North-South" tensions and the emphasis of other issues emerging from a broad range of "oppressions" of which race is a part. Don’t get me wrong, understanding the connections (or the "intersectionality" if you want to use the cool, hip lingo) is essential. I’m not trying to rock the "either race or" school here. But there is something worth examining about a world conference against racism that will have anti-Semitism (actually, they just mean anti-Jewish hate, the other Semitic peoples are left out of their framework) and Eastern European ethnic conflict on the agenda. If they were operating from an analytical framework that they were racialized as a result of their oppression (like say, the Russian Panthers), it might not require a second look. That’s not their claim.

As a result of the participation of these groups and the character of established human rights work globally, those involved in conference preparation thus far are largely white and from developed countries. And the effect on conference discourse and policy has been significant.

Are You Sure You’re (Not) Black?

For example, "African descendants" face particular difficulties within the UN preparatory framework as a result of what can only be characterized as acute racism and even fear of blacks. At the European regional preparatory meeting of non-governmental organizations last year in Strasbourg, there were participants that challenged a proposed resolution to call colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade crimes against humanity. Their rationale: slavery and colonialism brought "benefits" to Africans alongside the oppression, so the designation wasn’t necessary. In addition, African groups had to fight to get adequate representation in the meeting in the first place.

The African descendant groups also had difficulties getting statements into the documents coming out of the Americas meeting in Santiago last December. There, inadequate translation and lack of representation on the drafting committee exacerbated persistent tensions between black groups that have long felt marginalized and the powerful, established NGOs charged with running the meeting. Those not speaking Spanish were particularly alienated, an interesting switch from the U.S. context, where English is a tool of domination and Spanish is marginalized. Afro-Brazilians and francophone participants were affected the most.

Obviously, these incidents are disturbing in any context, but their occurrence within the framework of a world conference against racism made them all the more alarming. In response to these and other problems, a global meeting of "African descendants" was held in Vienna in April. More than 100 black-led NGOs were in attendance in order to hammer out a global African strategy and analysis for the World Conference. In a process that is mostly about the development and drafting of summary documents and plans of action, such a meeting is critical to advancing the unique issues facing Africans across the globe. Unfortunately, the response by many conference organizers was less than encouraging. In fact, a number of organizers expressed fear and concern that the meeting would be "exclusionary," "divisive" and "counter productive." The intense and public debate held mostly over the web demonstrated the extent to which old attitudes concerning blacks, self-determination, and fears by whites of being excluded still persist.

Although these tensions are not representative of the entire conference community, they demonstrate what happens when there are no clear principles of unity, common framework or even shared vision of racial justice. Of course, part of the challenge is that there’s a mighty big tent and lots of issues competing for the stage. Another factor is how race, not being a fixed biological fact, is mediated as a political, cultural, and socioeconomic construct.

The fact that a South Asian living in London is Black and a South Asian living in Los Angeles is definitely not demonstrates how local permutations of race and racism shape both racial consciousness and racial conflict. Attempting to develop global frameworks that take into account these subtleties has dogged conference organizing from the beginning. And these challenges are not only located among whites. There are people of color who are contesting the use of racism as an analytical framework as well.

Part of the reason why some groups of color are rejecting a racial framework is because the short-term tactical advantage of distancing the work from such an analysis appears to outweigh the long-term benefits of "racial solidarity" and alliance building. One example of this tactical distinction is found in the effort by some groups to insist on the inclusion of "xenophobia" on the conference agenda as a way to name and distinguish the oppression of people of color by whites who are not black. At the heart of the distinction is the assertion that the term racism "leaves them out" because racism only happens between blacks and whites. In addition, that since these groups constitute cultural and not racial categories, the term xenophobia more aptly describes their status as "legal" (though darker) whites. In other words, if you get to check "white" on your census form then race does not apply.

This is an important phenomenon because it represents a real turn from the Bandung style solidarity framework: the politics of distinguishing between xenophobia and racism are essentially about the rejection of traditional "third world" solidarity based on shared racial status as "non whites." It is the charting of new middle ground between a racial justice analysis on one hand, and racial solidarity with whites on the other–much like the "colored" category imposed under apartheid South Africa only, here, it is voluntarily embraced.

Yet there are others who see racializing their analysis and their work as an important part of how they advance their issue. Perhaps in the case of Africans, there really is no choice. Black and race are synonymous, so trying to come up with some other framework probably wouldn’t fly. But for other groups who easily could have rejected the race frame, why did they choose to embrace it? The answer lies in their militancy, their long-term view, and their sense of place in a global movement against racism and other forms of oppression.

Race and Revolution

For the Russian Panthers, race is a lens through which they make sense of their status in Israel. Says organization leader Merav Frolova (through translation), "The purpose of our activity is not in hooligan actions or quarrels. We see that ‘Black panthers’ in America as well as in Israel became catalyst[s] of culture revolution that started the process of including subculture of ethnic minority to magisterial society culture". (http://www.ispr.org/engl.html)

The Russian Panthers have been leveraging European and international forums of the world conference preparatory process to raise public awareness of hate crimes and institutional racism against Russian immigrants. Although their local organizing focus is young people in secondary school, they characterize their fight as part of a global anti-racist movement addressing state violence, hate, and gender oppression. For these Panthers, a racial justice analysis offers a framework that enables them to place their struggle into a larger historical context that recognizes race as a social construct.

The liberation movement among India’s Dalits to end caste oppression has long embraced the analysis that their struggle is not an issue of religious tolerance, it is about racial justice. The Dalits also launched their own Panther movement in the 1970s inspired by the Black Panthers in the United States. In fact, the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) often draws direct parallels between their struggle and the struggle of African Americans in the U.S.

"The word caste is derived from Latin word ‘castus’ meaning purity of blood/breed," writes the NCDHR. "Racism as an ideology is also based on this sole concept of purity of blood/breed. In the strict sense, caste is not race, but the roots of the caste system as it is practised can be seen in the ideology of racism."

With this analysis in tow, Dalits organizing around the World Conference directly pursued inclusion in the conference as victims of racism not "related intolerance." In this case, it is a tactical decision that is paying off. In spite of tough opposition by the Indian government, the Dalits’ straightforward racial solidarity has won them many allies and increasing visibility worldwide.

Beyond Bandung

Clearly, much has transpired over the 40-plus years since that watershed meeting in Bandung. This World Conference will likely boast few world leaders and even fewer participants from developing countries. Currently, more than three-quarters of the groups applying for accreditation are from the U.S. and many of the organizations going from the U.S. and Europe are, at this point, due to financial issues and other considerations, white-led.

All of these issues underscore the paradox of a conference saddled with both a broad "intolerance" agenda and the expectation that it should be a vehicle for racial justice work that matters. It’s highly likely that it won’t be both. And given the race politics thus far, it’s unlikely to accomplish the latter–that is, not without a serious fight.

Understanding that a United Nations meeting has its limitations, both political and otherwise, the conference organizing thus far still provides some insight into the state of racial justice work worldwide. Hopefully, these struggles will contribute to an emerging, post-third world dialectic of sorts where in the final analysis, we will retain the best of the "old"–a strong sense of solidarity and analysis informed by our understanding of white privilege and racial oppression, history and culture, politics and economics; while we continue to incorporate the new–a better understanding of the intersection of various oppressions, a vital analysis of globalization and emerging technologies as well as a sophisticated understanding of inter-ethnic oppression and its contexts. The World Conference, with all its flaws and tensions, exposes the need for such integrated analyses that help people see these important connections. It is also a rich opportunity to collectively take stock of where we are and what we need and connect that analysis to what we dream when we imagine ourselves free.

Related Link: ARC Transnational Racial Justice Initiative