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"Dismantling Racism at the WCAR,"

by Esmeralda Simmons January/February 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

Question: Will reparations by the US for the descendants of enslaved Africans in the US follow closely on the heels of the WCAR?

Answer: The US currently maintains an official policy of denial in regard to this entire issue. To date, the US government is fighting against the agreed-upon wording contained within the declaration of Durban. But, in my opinion, the current has already changed. The tide against racism is coming in. My ancestors are smiling.


For several eras in the 20th century, renowned leaders such as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, and activist scholars such as the late John Henrik Clarke, advocated in the US, Africa, the Caribbean, South America and Europe. Their advocacy called for a human rights review of the historical enslavement of Africans as chattel by Europeans and their American colonies, later nations. The call by Africans worldwide for reflection on the infamous European trade in Africans as slaves of the last millennium steadily increased in the final decades of the past century. (The European trade in Africans as slaves is generally referenced in non-descriptive terms such as the "Slave Trade," the "Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade," or the "African Slave Trade.") With the end of apartheid, the focus on racist human rights violations turned to the historical trade of Africans as slaves and to reparations for such acts. Against the wishes of the US government and its ally states, demand for holding a third World Conference on Racism continued to grow within the structures of the UN.

As an African, and a descendant of enslaved Africans, I have spent my young adult and adult life addressing the scourges of racism against African descendants within the US. I went to Durban because I felt deeply compelled to bring to the attention of the UN the treatment of Africans during our enslavement to and in the Americas. (My ancestors, commencing only two generations precedent, were so enslaved.) I understood that UN world conferences, and international human rights declarations and conventions, are largely verbal and demonstrative rhetoric. But although the UN has no enforcement power, the UN shapes world opinion. A strong resolution on this issue, therefore, would be a major blow to racism as it is institutionalized within US society, as well as to the enduring concept of "White (European) supremacy/Black (African) inferiority." Those who profit from this racist concept and systemic white privilege still have a negative impact on Africans and other people of color worldwide. So I was off to Durban.


The WCAR was an important historical event. Dozens of progressive groups and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) were going to South Africa. With deliberation and care, I chose to work with the December 12th International Secretariat, a small but focused group out of New York City. For over twelve years, to their credit, they had been participating in the annual meetings of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. They were following the mandate of Malcolm X -- to bring the international issue of the mistreatment of Black people to the UN: "It’s not a civil rights issue, it’s a human rights issue.” They were going to Durban in coalition with the national Black United Front, another organization that I respected. The coalition amassed the largest single NGO delegation, several hundred people of African descent from the US, to participate in the delegate conference of the WCAR. Each member of the delegation, dubbed the "Durban 400," had traveled to South Africa at her/his own expense and volunteered to work.

The Durban 400 forwarded three linked platform positions for delegate action in Durban: (1)The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was a crime against humanity; (2) Economics is the basis of racism; and (3) Reparations are due. In Durban, thousands of NGOs with hundreds of variations on the conferences themes were present. Being in the midst of so many diverse against-racism progressives was exhilarating and affirming. Despite the language handicap of most members of the Durban 400, we exchanged messages with the impressive Dalit and Rosa groups and hundreds of old and new acquaintances. The resistance movement against racism and racial intolerance is vividly active across the planet. Activists from across the globe, nations and people of color who had been colonized or enslaved, stated how they saw racism as an active concept and as an institutionalized system embedded within their societies. The commitment of the advocates, especially the NGOs, to erase the global plague of racism was passionate, reasoned and relentless. Rallies, participating in a 10,000-person labor demonstration march through the streets of downtown Durban, plus the oratory talents of Kofi Annan, Fidel Castro, Bishop Desmond Tutu,WCAR President Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, and many state delegations, such as Barbados, fueled our determination, even when we were physically exhausted.

The Durban 400 delegation was extremely organized in our advocacy; ours was a group that worked 15-hour days from the first day of the delegate conference (August 31) until its last day (September 7). During this time, we conferred with the African Group, other NGOs and our allies in the African Descendants Group. In addition, scores of our delegation regularly button-holed official state delegates and hammered home our positions. US opposition and its theatrical departure did not deter this world of advocates who came to work on eliminating racism and related issues. Although the conference was scheduled to end on September 7, when we departed for our remote lodgings a final document was still being negotiated between the African Group and the European Union Group. On the morning of September 8, before the Durban 400 departed for the US, we returned to the convention site in time to receive the freshly minted final conference declaration. The fruit of our labor was victory: our two main points had made it into the world document!

Notwithstanding this major rhetorical victory, the significance of the Durban Conference will be measured by its effects. As a proud participant, I see it as a watershed in a resistance movement against racism that is centuries old. Our crowning achievement:
In 2001, African people world-wide garnered enough political power to have a world body declare our ancestors to be humans, and, as well, to declare that the incomparable suffering committed by the hands of Europeans and US citizens for purpose of profit to be crimes against humanity – specifically, the slave trade industry and colonialism. Finally, member states were called upon to compensate group victims and state victims of these acts.

My ancestors are smiling.

Esmeralda Simmons , a former PRRAC Board member, is a civil rights and human rights attorney. She serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, City University of New York.


Esmeralda Simmons (, a former PRRAC Board member, is a civil rights and human rights attorney. She serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, City University of New York.


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