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"Post-Durban Implications for the US Civil Rights Agenda,"

by john a. powell January/February 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

There are many ways to think about the importance of the UN WCAR and the impact it will have on the United States and the world. To make a clear assessment of the conference will take time. It will also depend on the work we do and events that unfold.

Although the WCAR was preceded by 50 years of UN activity on combating racism and two related world conferences, the Durban conference was the first international forum to focus closely on specific and practical steps to eradicate racism, and most importantly, marked a historic breakthrough for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which mobilized for the first time to address racism on a global level from the bottom up. An estimated 10,000 delegates representing NGOs from around the world converged on Durban for three days of caucusing preceding the UN forum. The NGO caucuses worked on finalizing an NGO program of action, which had been revised over the course of the two preceding years in caucus leadership meetings, held parallel to six UN preparatory meetings leading up to the WCAR. The final NGO program of action was ceremoniously carried through the streets of Durban in a global march of over 20,000 persons to the opening ceremonies of the UN forum, where it was presented to Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights. Copies of the NGO program of action were subsequently provided to all 168 government delegations representing the signatory countries to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). The UN forum constituted the concluding process for reconciling the NGO program of action with a UN program of action, which, like the NGO document, had been revised over the course of the preceding two years through the UN preparatory meetings. The NGO and UN programs of action provide the US social justice movement with an emancipatory framework for gauging local and national efforts and provide it with a tool to engage in the global movement to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.

Since its adoption in 1968, ICERD has been an available, but substantially ineffective, political lever for fighting racial discrimination. The effectiveness of the Convention has been limited by a number of factors, including the lack the lack of political will; confusion as to what is racism; the structure of having a country do its own reporting; and the absence of universal measures of structural racism to guide the implementation of its political mandates. Our role at the conference was focused on helping to bring attention to the lack of adequate measures.

Universal measures are critical in two respects: They allow for an evaluation of meta or transformative structures and their influence on maintaining racial disparities in fundamental human rights; and they provide the basis for evaluating affirmative action strategies, in terms of measuring progress in democratizing the structures and providing a basis for valuing and quantifying claims of reparations – that is, measuring progress in closing disparity gaps.

There are two significant challenges to establishing universal measures. The first is the need to establish a global norm for defining race. The second is the need to address gaps in statistical capacity. These concerns were recognized in both the NGO and UN programs of action as preeminent in the global challenge to ending racism. As important as these indicators are, it would be more than naïve to believe that such improvements would be sufficient to begin to address racism as a global problem.

A number of additional things have to be done to move this important project. Many of the opportunities for this, as well as the impediments, are here in the United States. The importance of the role of the United States government and the NGOs was driven home at the conference. We are used to thinking about the United States as the most powerful country in the world. As John Lennon said, the United States is the Roman Empire. It is troubling to think that progress on this issue is dependent on what the United States does. One can hardly believe that we will make substantial progress on eliminating racism if leadership must come from either the Bush Administration or from most Democratic administrations. It is well known now that the Administration tried to derail the conference even before it started. As the world leader, with a substantial and growing population of color, our actions before and during the conference can only be called shameful. It is also not surprising that while the ICERD covers both intentional acts of racism as well as racist effects, the US has refused to address the issues of racist effects. But the power in the United States is not limited to the government. The NGOs in the US are also in a privileged and powerful position. And if this power can be used in appropriate ways in concert with others throughout the world, there is no reason to despair. Unfortunately, it is not clear that this power will be harnessed.

NGOs left Durban having established a foundation for a global coalition and an emancipatory framework to dismantle structural racism worldwide. Whereas it is commonly perceived that globalization is a phenomenon capable of being harnessed only by superpower governments and transnational corporations, Durban demonstrated that advances in technology, such as the internet and cell phones, have created new opportunities for networking and global collaboration. The insight that capital is mobile while people are rooted appears to be overstated. The new millennium, with the recognition that globalization is the ultimate metastructure, is capable of being democratized from the bottom up, as the critical solution to eliminating racism worldwide. This recognition set in motion the agenda of national and regional NGOs to bring back to their constituents: that their national and regional movements must be linked to the emerging global movement, not out of strategic preference, but because of necessity predicated by the era of globalization.

But the momentum and potential of Durham, which was already suffering from the United States role before and during the conference, has suffered another setback since the conference. In the aftermath of September 11, the US public mood has been captured in a managed fervor, where individuals and groups fighting for racial equality have been subjugated into a category of suspects – distractors from the patriotic duty of vigilance to homeland security. The public is being led to believe that there is no patriotic space to discuss the contradictions that exist between the ideals of democracy for which it is being asked to go to war and the domestic tolerance being exhibited for social exclusion produced by globalized predatory economic and cultural exploitation. In the midst of this fog of war, US NGOs have slipped into a self-imposed exile from carrying the message of Durban back to their communities. This silence is an unaffordable luxury, which, reflecting on the lessons of Durban, we must end. Fighting to end racism and build a nation and world where social, political and economic resources are not correlated to race is not un-American or unpatriotic. US NGOs constituted almost a third of the NGO delegations in Durban. They brought not only their voices, but also the resources and strategic placement to amplify and sustain the collective message from Durban before the global community. If the message from Durban to globalize the fight against racism is to move forward and reach its potential of mobilizing a sustainable global coalition, it will be critical for US NGOs to re-engage in the mission to bring the message to their constituents. There is a need for a national NGO conference from which to establish a US NGO program of action. In turn, this action can be leveraged as a model to support regional conferences in South American, Africa, Asia and Europe. As the distance between Durban and these actions grows, the momentum weakens behind the foundation established in Durban, jeopardizing the sustainability of the fledgling global coalition.

The message that needs to be brought back to the US race relations agenda can be summarized as follows: Seven categories of meta or transformative structures present the turning point for ending racism, which can be realized only through multiracial and multinational coalition strategies to achieve their democratization. These seven categories of capabilities and opportunities are financial, legislative, regulatory, juridical, policing, communicative and prestige structures, which exist in relationship at the international, national and local levels, to comprehensively shape the distributive human rights paradigm, as well as help define who we are. The establishment of a Global Racial Empowerment Index provides the basis for uniform measures of structural racism and a platform for maintaining the post-Durban global coalition, both of which are essential to ending all forms of racial discrimination.

john a. powell is Secretary of PRRAC's Board, is on the faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School, where he directs the Institute on Race & Poverty (415 Law Ctr., 229 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55455. 612/625-5529, E-mail:


john powell (, a PRRAC Board member, holds the Earl R. Larson Chair of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law and is executive director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School.


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