Today, March 21, marks the day proclaimed by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly to be the annual International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
On this day in 1960, police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful rally against apartheid law in the township of Sharpeville, South Africa. In 1966, this date was chosen by the UN to represent a call to nations across the world to commit to the fight against racism and discrimination. Alongside marking the 50th anniversary of the creation of this day, today also marks the 15th anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. Created in 2001 by the UN to outline an extensive and comprehensive framework of anti-racism action and legislation, the Programme was to be implemented globally to improve the state of affairs for marginalized racial groups.
The most crucial aspects of the Declaration focus on the acknowledgement of slavery as a crime against humanity, the role of the government in preventative and remedial work for racialized groups, a primary focus on the narratives of racialized groups, and the call for the involvement of individuals and groups from all walks of life – non-governmental organizations, political parties, the private sector, the media, civil society, and more – to be engaged in anti-racism efforts. The Declaration also voices concerns about the increasing prevalence of religious discrimination, specifically anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
While the Durban Declaration may present itself as a neat and well-packaged ‘anti-racism 101,’ the truth is that the Declaration has been quite ineffective. UN scholars themselves agree that it has done little to nothing to combat growing hatred and xenophobia that have become apparent across the world today. Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, Mutuma Ruteere; the Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, Mireille Fanon Mendes-France; and the Chairperson of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, José Francisco Cali Tzay stated in a March 17 press release, “Much more needs to be done by governments around the world to protect vulnerable groups and punish the perpetrators. Impunity has become the norm for what are heinous crimes and this is a very alarming situation. We see an alarming increase of hate and xenophobic speech echoing across the globe. Political leaders, public figures and even mass media stigmatize and scapegoat migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, and foreigners in general, as well as minorities.”
As disheartening as it feels to say this, they’re right. It’s been 15 years since the Durban Declaration was issued and it feels as if race relations across the world have neither progressed nor plateaued, but have rather regressed. Across the world, the state of inter-ethnic and inter-racial relations has gotten worse, with racism, xenophobia, bigotry, and outright apathy toward people of colour becoming more and more prominent every day. However uncomfortable it is for dominant racial groups to hear, and painful for some marginalized groups to acknowledge, the unfortunate truth is that racism and the legacies of colonialism still haunt people of colour and Indigenous people, shaping their lives and experiences and tipping the scales in favour of the white population.
Where the Durban Declaration has failed
It isn’t necessary to look any farther than outside our windows to see how racism has impacted the lives of people of colour and Indigenous people. In Canada, Indigenous women are three times more likely to be victims of violent crime than any other racial demographic, and at least six times more likely to be murdered. Between 1980 and 2012, 1,181 cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women have been recognized by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) as being part of the epidemic of violence against these women. Even this number is considered to be a conservative estimate that does not take into account the hundreds of potentially unacknowledged cases.
This violence is not a result of independent, contemporary circumstances, but is part of a longstanding pattern of violence against Indigenous women that spans the last few centuries. This pattern is rooted in a legacy of colonialism and colonial patriarchy imposed on Indigenous communities, exhibited by institutions such as residential schools and legislation disenfranchising Indigenous women and taking from them their right to partake in Indigenous leadership. Added to this are a number of longstanding racist stereotypes internalized by the government and authority figures across the country, which render law enforcement ineffective in preventing or aiding in the elimination of violence against Indigenous women.
There is significant and obvious evidence of racism even outside the Canadian borders. In the U.S., patterns of racialized violence are enacted against black people constantly. This epidemic of violence is most commonly associated with police brutality, as the most notable offenders have been white police officers who are almost never penalized for their crimes. However, in the climate of hate exacerbated by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, average-Joe white supremacists are also being armed with the arsenal of hateful anti-black rhetoric they need to legitimize their preexisting feelings and violent actions. People of colour who – with an amount of courage I cannot even begin to fathom – protest at Trump rallies are met with malice and physical and verbal abuse that are sometimes reminiscent of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
While, for the first half of his campaign, Trump’s candidacy was treated like a joke, he insidiously built up the vile and racist constituency that has now put him ahead in the polls. Every time a late-night talk show host joked dismissively about Trump, someone watching was given yet another opportunity to internalize Trump’s message to validate their own prejudices. This was never a joke. From the moment it began, Trump’s treatment of people of colour has had tangible consequences – it has been considered the enabling factor in hate crimes in various parts of the country. As the American elections grow closer and the reality of Trump’s popularity becomes clearer, it’s difficult for some to imagine that this is a situation America has to face in 2016.
In the U.S. and Canada as well as in Europe, similar levels of hatred are being directed toward Muslims in reaction to the perceived threat of the Syrian refugee crisis and “terrorism” – which, in reality, is largely a pretense used to justify warfare in western Asia and profit-oriented weapons trade. This was the case immediately after 9/11, and is still the case now. Indeed, there are definitely terrorist attacks that happen and that kill many, and leave families forever altered – but they are certainly not to the scale that the mainstream Canadian and American media like to portray. According to several studies on causes of death in the U.S. and Canada, you are more likely to be killed by falling furniture, lightning strikes, or falling off a ladder than by terrorists. And in regards to rates of terrorism specifically, Americans are more likely to be killed by white extremists than by so called “Islamic” terrorists – the myth of Islam presenting a threat to the West is a gross misrepresentation of the reality of contemporary war, and is a propaganda tool that, in benefiting a select few white elites, has marginalized Muslims across the world.
This is the same ‘threat’ that has legitimized the closing of borders to refugees across Europe – refugees who are, in fact, often fleeing from the same threat they are believed to pose. Syrian Muslims are much more likely to be affected by Daesh than most Americans and Europeans currently are. And yet, refugees are being denied the basic human right to shelter because they share a religion with a terrorist group – a statement that is flawed in itself, as most Islamic leaders across the world have denounced the actions of Daesh and insist that the group is not representative of Islam. Despite this, Muslims all over the world have to pay for the crimes of a select few, and are often subject to spiteful rhetoric and hate crimes as a result.
These issues represent only a small selection of the most visible problems facing people of colour and Indigenous people around the world today, but the systems of racism and colonialism that cause them pervade all social structures and institutions, including McGill. If the racially charged dynamics of life on campus are not apparent to you right now, that doesn’t mean they’re nonexistent; and if you do recognize the structures of racism and colonialism that influence the lives of students and staff of colour, then you’ll understand the scale of the problem. To try to fathom the full extent of racism in this institution is daunting, to say the least. Where does one even begin? James McGill owned slaves – that’s a place to start. From the birth of this institution until this very day, race has influenced the lived experiences of all who enter these hallowed halls, by informing levels of privilege and marginalization, and determining the way students are treated by their peers and their institution. There’s no escaping or denying the impact race has on each and every one of us.
The UN may set up a thorough framework to combat racism, and ratify it and celebrate it for years to come – but how legislation looks on paper and how it translates into real life are two very different things. And the truth is, however comprehensive the Durban Declaration may have attempted to be, it has done little to nothing to improve the realities with which people of colour live. The reason for this could be due to the language and logistics of the Declaration itself, or due to the real-world application of these guidelines to lived experiences. The unfathomable scale of this aspect of our lives is perhaps the greatest barrier to overcoming it. To live within a legacy of racism and colonialism is to have your land, culture, and rights stolen, and to have to continuously fight to be free of the weight of that legacy. This is what racism is – it is real, and it is every day.
Minority Report is a column that deconstructs racism through an intersectional lens. Inori Roy-Khan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.