Racism, Xenophobia and Human Rights

By Vorster, J. M. | The Ecumenical Review, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Racism, Xenophobia and Human Rights


Vorster, J. M., The Ecumenical Review


Ethnic conflict has to some degree become a basic feature in many modern societies, due to the fact that these societies have increasingly diverse populations. This growing diversity can be attributed to the extending global pattern of migration. In his assessment of the characteristics of these conflicts, Marger identified such conflicts in the United States, Sri Lanka, India, Burundi, South Africa, Sudan, Lebanon, Spain, Russia, several of the former republics of the Soviet Union and Germany. (1) Many other countries can be added to this list in which racism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia are the underlying causes of these conflicts. (2)

Zuma describes this growing phenomenon in this way:

 
   Behind any conflict, whether it is in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Sudan, 
   genocide in Rwanda, apartheid in South Africa, problems in the Middle East 
   between Israel and Palestine, you are sure to find racism, racial 
   discrimination, xenophobia or a related intolerance. Without dealing with 
   this frankly and honestly we cannot ever hope to achieve total respect for 
   human rights. (3) 

Due to the increase in migration, this ethnic conflict is certainly not temporary in nature. According to the well-known "Hansen's Law", first-generation immigrants conserve their cultural identity within the broader community they have migrated to, and this without much conflict. The second generation tends to assimilate with the broader culture in the region. But the third generation is looking again for their own roots and the perseverance of the culture of their ancestors; and due to their search for their own language, religion and customs they now come into conflict with the broader culture. (4) The migration patterns of the early 20th century are, to a large extent, responsible for the current racial conflicts, and the immense amount of migration over the whole world today promises a future of increasing racism and xenophobia.

Although racism and xenophobia manifest themselves differently in different regions, communities and social contexts, the major pattern of this phenomenon remains the same and can therefore be dealt with in a general investigation.

Here the aim is to define and analyze racism and xenophobia from an ethical perspective. The central theoretical argument is that a comprehensive approach dealing with the political, social, educational, economic and cultural issues is necessary to curb the wave of racism and xenophobia sweeping over humanity today and to deal with the prospect of progressing intolerance and conflict in the future. Due to its historical experience of institutional racism, and its contemporary exemplary efforts of reconciliation, South Africa will feature prominently in this investigation. Firstly, attention will be paid to the definitions and social manifestations of racism and xenophobia. The pattern of these phenomena will be investigated and then examined in view of a Christian theory of human rights. The aim is to contribute to a possible solution to the severe effects of racism and xenophobia in contemporary societies.

Racism

DEFINITION

The concept of "race" describes a group of people with the same physical characteristics and with notable cultural and social similarities. (5) In view of this description racism can be defined as an attitude of prejudice, bias and intolerance between various racial groups.

To understand the contemporary use of the concept of racism, Marger's exposition is of great value. Racism in his view can be seen as a belief system, or ideology, structured around three basic ideas:

* humans are divided naturally into different physical types;

* such physical traits as they display are intrinsically related to their culture, personality and intelligence;

* on the basis of their genetic inheritance, some groups are innately superior to others.

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