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"Reflections on Durban and 9/11,"

by Linda Burnham January/February 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

Those of us who participated in the United Nations World Conference Against Racism did so in the hopes that we could help create new conditions, new understandings and new strategies for the struggle against racism; that we could help move the international community another step forward in its fitful efforts to eradicate racism, ethnic conflict and xenophobia. Our time in South Africa was intense and we came home intending to work together to evaluate what was gained and what was lost, and to share our rich experiences with all of you here at home.

But the UN Conference was rapidly overshadowed, relegated to a dim, possibly irrelevant pre-September 11th past. Part of the struggle is to find our bearings in the these deeply unsettling times, to cull some of the lessons of Durban and link them, as best we can, to current circumstances.

If it was about anything, Durban was about how the past bears down upon the present, about how unevenly the weight of history is borne. The battle over reparations was central. It widened out from compensatory measures for descendants of the African slave trade in the Americas -- an issue that made its way in from the outer margins of political discourse, due principally to the dogged persistence of African American activists in the US – to include the full legacy of colonialism in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, the Caribbean and the islands of the Pacific.

The yawning, ever-widening gap between the nations of the North and the nations of the South raised the question of debt relief – who owes what to whom, and why. In Durban, the question was asked: Having been robbed for centuries, are not the nations of the South due restitution from their assailants? Can the appetite for gobbling up the wealth of other nations and peoples to support the ill-gotten prosperity of North America and Europe ever be curbed? And the answer from the North: The US, fattened on the land, lives and liberty of conquered nations and enslaved peoples, said no – not today, not tomorrow, not in this millennium. What is on offer is not compensation, restitution, reparations and heartfelt regrets but new forms of global plunder. And Belgium, head of the European Union, its hands still damp and sticky with the blood of the Congo, said no, we don’t want to talk about it: the legacy of colonialism is not relevant to our discussion of current-day racism, and we won’t have it mentioned in the final document.

This was not simple recalcitrance. It was willful, shameful denial of the past in the service of preserving racist, profoundly unequal relations between nations and peoples in the present and far into the future. The US and Israel, unprepared to face the horrendous consequences of past or present policy, turned on their heels and walked out. Convened in South Africa, guests of the people whose recent triumph over a most egregious form of 20th century racialism we all celebrate, it was not lost on many of us that the US and Israel had also stood arm in arm – until the bitter end – in providing support and encouragement to the terrorists of the apartheid state.

What has this to do with September 11th and its aftermath? The US impulse to “rule and rule without end, forever and ever” (the phrase is W.E.B. Dubois’) is not an impulse to dominance simply for its own sake, but dominance for the sake of the protection of wealth – wealth already stolen and wealth anticipated. If that dominance requires alliance with unsavory despots, corrupt regimes and fanatical reactionaries, so be it.

The deal struck with the Taliban, through Pakistan and the CIA, must have seemed like a thousand others made ‘round the world: We will turn a blind eye to the imposition of repressive, theocratic decrees. We will turn a deaf ear to the torment of girls, women and homosexuals. We will ensure that the American public remains comfortably ignorant of the bargain struck and its terrible toll on the suffering Afghan people. And in exchange, with the abundance of armaments our taxpayers provide, you will keep at bay any and all forces viewed as hostile to US interests in the region. Though the details may differ, such deals are operative worldwide, backed by massive military presence on every continent and all the seas. But this deal turned sour as fundamentalist tyrants, encouraged, armed and emboldened for 15 years, developed their own fearsome agenda.

Ruth Manorama, a fierce advocate for the rights of India’s Dalits, spoke with passion at a Women of Color Resource Center workshop in Durban. The Dalits were a huge presence at the UN Conference, insisting that thousands of years of caste discrimination be brought to an end. Ruth and other Dalit leaders reminded us that while religion may bring solace, comfort and a moral compass to some, it can be, at the very same time, an instrument of repression and degradation for others. Those others may be co-religionists, those of other faiths or secularists. And often enough it is women who suffer. Millions of crimes against women are committed each day in the name of religion, custom and tradition. Religious fundamentalism – whether Christian, Islamic, Judaic or Hindu – constitutes a mortal threat to women.

Neither the gated communities of the upper classes, nor the star wars missile defense shield, nor the ominous Office of Homeland Security can protect us from the consequences of a world overflowing with men women and children whose fate, from cradle to grave, is grinding poverty, crushing labor and crippling disease. Let us remember that within two weeks of the Twin Towers tragedy, the airline industry had managed to squeeze $15 billion out of the federal budget. The insurance industry is in line to get its share, and others line up at the trough – the very same trough that can’t provide funds for women on welfare or free medical care for seniors on fixed incomes.

$15 billion. Could the US not survive the demise of one or two of our multiple airline carriers? What if that $15 billion were devoted to eliminating infant and maternal mortality worldwide? Or to AIDS treatment and prevention. Or to water, sanitation and electrification. Or to eliminating school fees, raising teachers’ salaries, building schools and buying books and computers. To the education of the girls of Afghanistan. Or to adequately house the homeless and those who find shelter in the shanty towns, favelas and migrant shacks around the world. What if that $15 billion and another $15 billion after that were devoted to finding a truly just solution to the unending crisis in the Middle East.

Our time in Durban did give us hope, despite the actions of the US government and others who refused to honestly engage the struggle against racism. We marched through the streets with thousands upon thousands of energized, organized, politically conscious South Africans determined to hold their government accountable to their needs. We met with incredible women in Durban and Johannesburg -- women who are leaders in their communities and nations, leading the fight for the rights of girls and women, for the rights of racial, ethnic and religious minorities. Our hopes were raised and our vision expanded in intense exchanges of experiences and strategies with dedicated activists from around the world whose lives are committed to the struggle for justice. So Durban was both an encounter with the ugly face of racist resistance and a source of sorely needed optimism.


Linda Burnham ( is co-founder and executive director of the Women of Color Resource Center, a non-profit education, community action and resource center committed to developing a strong, institutional foundation for social change activism by and on behalf of women of color. Her most recent publications include Women's Education in the Global Economy, a popular education workbook on the impact of the global economy on women, co-authored with Miriam Louie, and Time to Rise: US Women of Color – Issues and Strategies, co-edited with Jung Hee Choi and Maylei Blackwell. She recently led a delegation of 25 women of color activists and scholars to the UN Conference.

This article is an edited version of a speech delivered at WCRC's 3rd Annual Sisters of Fire Awards (the speech in its entirety can be found at; the Award was given to Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), who cast the sole House vote against the blank check war powers given to President Bush.


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