PRRAC Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Home About PRRAC Current Projects Publications Newsletters Resources Contact Us Support PRRAC Join Our Email List

"Bridging the Racial Justice Chasm,"

by Gary Delgado January/February 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

Since September 11 we have entered a new era of racial politics. We have internationalized US racism. President Bush has used the insidious imagery of an evil (though not godless) enemy against whom, we are told, we must unite. Only this time, instead of the “godless communists” of the ‘50s and 60s, our enemy is “fanatical fundamentalist terrorists.” Are the Taliban bad news? Yes. But they were already bad news back in May when we were still providing them with financial support.

The US assertion of a unilateral right to attack both terrorists and the states that harbor them is an important framework for the responses to September 11. Building on this framework, the enemy lives in not one but many nation states, may be assisted by coconspirators in any country (including the US), and is so nefarious that the public release of proof linking these enemies to the September 11 attacks is, Bush says, too threatening to US “assets.”

What does this have to do racism? The most obvious effect abroad is that framing the enemy as both Muslim and terrorist opens the opportunity for the US to attack Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Within the US, reactions to the attack have increased targeting of people of color. Republican Congressman Darrell Issa was not allowed to board a flight to Saudi Arabia because he “fit the profile” –he is Arab-American. Issa’s story is not unique. Gallup found 58% of Americans believe that Arab-Americans should be subject to more intensive security checks, and 49% wanted them to have special i.d. cards. A third of respondents to a PSA/Newsweek poll thought that Arabs should be put under special surveillance, while 31% of respondents to a Harris CNN/Time poll thought that Arab-Americans should be held in camps.

Media reaction has not exactly been unbiased. The New York Times, for instance, has gone out of its way to publish quotes from people of color who think that racial profiling might be acceptable. And, instead of stemming the tide of race-baiting, the Bush Administration has fanned the flames. Bush has not only pushed his “dead or alive” rhetoric for our new enemies abroad, he has also supported Attorney General Ashcroft’s efforts to:
  • Indefinitely detain without charge over 1200 people, most of Arab descent, refuse to release their names, and deny them access to their families or attorneys;
  • Sanction the Justice Department’s eavesdropping on conversations between lawyers and detainees when “national security” is at stake;
  • Reactivate domestic spying procedures the FBI’s and CIA’s — Cointelpro is back;
  • Promise to extend the stay of non-citizens who “critically and reliably” snitch on other immigrants.

As chilling as these policies are, they come as no surprise to those of us who attended the World Conference Against Racism in South Africa. Less than three weeks before the attacks, the US made a statement to the world about our government’s position on racism: withdrawing the US delegation sent a loud and clear message — it wasn’t worth talking about.

Despite the absence of the US government, the conference taught several lessons that might prove valuable as we enter into a pitched battle over efforts to limit civil liberties, challenge civil rights and subvert democratically-based opposition to US policies.

The first lesson about the UN conference has to do with context: While the stage leading up to the WCAR had been set by Western governments maneuvering to ensure that making a political point about race and racism would be difficult, holding the conference in South Africa made a substantive difference. South Africa itself is a political point about racism.

I visited South Africa first in 1991, again in 1999, and once more at the conference. Each time, it seemed like a new country. My visit in ’91 was right after the government had “unbanned” many groups, including the ANC. As a projection of future racial solidarity, almost every organization we visited met us with tri-racial leadership — black, white and colored. The locally-based “civics” demonstrated a degree of political sophistication that I’d hoped we in the US could learn to emulate.

My visit in ’99 was a little more sobering. My son was studying at the University of Natal, and my wife, my father and I spent three weeks touring the country and seeing the new South Africa through his eyes. Many things had changed. Much of the leadership of the civics had been drawn into government. The pre-election anti-apartheid coalition appeared to be fraying around the edges. On a plane from Durban to Port Elizabeth, I sat next to a white man who explained how he was leading a “freedom train” of white South Africans out of the country by helping to place professionals in Canada, Australia, the United States and Europe. While our stay in KwaZulu Natal was markedly different from the violent clashes between the IFP and ANC in 1991, the racial stratification was quite evident, the tension palpable. Our stops along the Garden Route from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town put us in contact with whites who had fled Johannesburg to the perceived safety of the country, while our Cape Town discussions with professional and working class “coloreds” yielded guarded criticisms of the ANC.

Though my visit to the WCAR was the shortest, I found that the country’s social climate was different—again. With Mandela no longer President, criticism of the ANC was more open. Rebukes ranged from disapproval about the distribution of resources, to the state of the country’s health care and education systems, to complaints about the ANC’s plan to privatize parts of the public sector.

It was most interesting that members of the ANC debated these criticisms both privately and publicly. They listened to the critiques, laid out their situation, delivered their rationale for a particular course of action, and actually engaged the possibility that there might be other legitimate perspectives. They even dealt with the off-the-wall doctrinaire posturing of some US delegates with intelligence and good humor, pointing out that yes, they had made some compromises, but they had decided that political compromise was preferable to the constant state of siege that other colonized peoples like the Palestinians were subject to. So, while most people attending the conference came with their own issue, South Africa provided us all with a rich historical context of struggle — and gave us a vision of the democratic debate that we often talk about but seldom see.

Making a Political Point at the WCAR

Because many racial and ethnic groups from around the world have been shut out of other UN conferences, WCAR was their first opportunity on the world stage. And because the framework for the conference was racism and intolerance, broadly defined, many groups reframed their grievances and struggles to fit into a frame of structural racism. So caste, national origin, a number of forms of religious repression, efforts to promote indigenous rights, and anti-colonial struggles were all framed racially.

This had its pluses and minuses. It was mostly positive, because many religious and anti-colonial struggles do have a racial dimension. However, because “racism” was stretched to include many different types of structures and behaviors, seeing common ground was more difficult. Emphasizing commonalties, however, was not the primary agenda for many groups. Most wanted to publicize and legitimate their issue. The two groups that in my view succeeded best were the Dalits (Indian people who many Westerners know as “untouchables”) and the Palestinians. The Dalits employed an “insider” strategy. Their large and well-organized delegation assessed every panel, committee, and potential gathering and used each opportunity to carry their message –that the caste system is racial oppression. In response, the Indian government took the position that whereas second-class citizenship was a problem, they were dealing with it. This position was articulated through front groups that activists from around the world called GONGOS (government-organized non-governmental organizations). A number of Western governments supported GONGOS, but so did some of the larger countries from the East. China, for instance, had audience shills claiming that representatives from Tibet were exaggerating the case of religious repression—“and besides,” they claimed, “it’s a matter of national sovereignty.”

The Palestinians employed a different strategy, utilizing their connections with the South African government to raise the profile of their plight. Thus, while the Dalits focused on conferees as their primary target audience, the Palestinians used their connections to the host country to amplify their message in the world press. For instance, the big anti-privatization march had a pro-Palestinian component, and thousands of South Africans attended a Palestinian support rally outside the conference. So, although the liveliest contingents inside were the Dalit and the Roma peoples (who most people in the US know as “gypsies”), the group that received the biggest press recognition, due to both the pre-conference stance of the US and Israel and the support they’d received from the South Africans, was the Palestinians.

Reflection on the both the WCAR and the reactions to September 11 suggests a number of lessons:
  • First, the Bush Administration’s domestic attacks on civil liberties and the racialized attacks abroad are one set of policies. Bush and Company’s efforts to fan the flames of racism, aggregate power to the government as a result of the fear they generate, and ignore the negative impacts, both domestic and global, of US policies and procedures, constitute a consistent modus operandi;
  • Second, South Africa has much to teach us. A society where issues of race and racism are seriously “on the table” and where the government is honestly grappling with issues of equity and uneven development is an important model. While the South African government is not perfect, a government with leaders willing to engage in real debate about policies and ideas has much to recommend it;
  • Finally, it is very clear that we were unprepared for the rapidity, severity and broad swath of the Bush/Ashcroft post-September 11 barrage. African American and Latino organizations were tackling issues of profiling and political representation, immigrant rights groups were focused on legalization, language rights and the reinstitution of public benefits, and civil rights advocates confronted the traditional arena of racial discrimination and civil liberties violations. So, when push came to shove, we lacked both the organizational mechanisms and the political solidarity to mount a response. Our lesson is that our enemies have consolidated their strength. Our challenge is to bridge the chasm that divides us.


Gary Delgado (, a former PRRAC Board member, is Executive Director of the Applied Research Center in Oakland, CA and scholar-in-residence at the Inst. for the Study of Social Change, University of California-Berkeley.


Join Our Email List
Search for:             
Join Our Email List