Going Global: How America's Civil Rights Struggle Can Help Itself by Helping the World

Article excerpt

THE MOVEMENT FOR RACIAL justice and equality in this country is now being presented with a unique opportunity to "internationalize": the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The World Conference Against Racism is being hosted by South Africa, fitting venue for a global discussion on new and effective approaches to combating racism. The conference will take place from August 31 to September 7, 2001.

This conference will be more than just a one-time event. It is a global process that civil rights organizations and social justice groups in the United States can contribute to and benefit from in a number of ways. U.S. groups can contribute their expertise and experience, particularly in the area of civil rights advocacy and litigation. At the same time, U.S. groups can bring international attention to the problems we continue to face in this country--from hate crimes, racial bias in the criminal justice system, de facto segregation in public education and residential patterns, to environmental racism and xenophobia.

The U.S. government's record on racism is being held up to scrutiny, and U.S. policies on such important matters as affirmative action, reparations and hate speech are being examined for the degree to which they are in compliance with international standards. Groups that participate in the World Conference Against Racism process will be able to monitor the commitments that the U.S. government makes in international forums. They will also be able to form international, regional and national networks with other groups engaged in the fight against racism.

The main themes on the agenda of the World Conference Against Racism were determined by government representatives at a United Nations meeting in May 2000, with considerable input from non-governmental organizations. The agenda, discussed in more detail below, will be further developed in subsequent meetings. While the U.S. government will attempt to downplay certain controversial or sensitive topics, many NGOs will seek to place all the relevant issues on the World Conference agenda.

U.S. groups will not be the only ones pushing for affirmative action, reparations, environmental justice, or criminal justice reform. These are, in fact, international issues and national priorities for the marginalized and the disenfranchised in many regions of the world, such as, Brazil, India, Nigeria, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Native Americans in this country and aboriginals in Australia and New Zealand will put forward their claims to cultural and land rights at the World Conference Against Racism. Racial minorities in the U.S. can join racial minorities in Spain and Sri Lanka in demanding equal access to education and employment. Racist immigration policies in the U.S., Europe, Australia, and Asia will be challenged through the World Conference process, as well as institutional racism in corporate America and in the global economy.

Perhaps the most important opportunity of the World Conference Against Racism is to make visible those groups and communities who are impacted by racial discrimination but who are, for the most part, "invisible," both outside and within their countries and regions. The descendants of African slaves in countries such as Columbia, Uruguay, and other parts of Latin America, the Roma (or Gypsies) in Central and Eastern Europe, and the Dalits in India, are some of the victims of racism who have received relatively little attention in the past. The World Conference will provide a forum for their issues to emerge onto the international agenda, and assume greater prominence and urgency both internationally and domestically.

For the U.S., the World Conference Against Racism challenges us to be both inward and outward looking, to be candid and forthright about our problems, to be willing to learn from the experiences and practices of other countries, and to be specific and action-oriented in our plans for the future while coming to terms with our history. …