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

"Post Durban: Where Will We Stand,"

by James Early January/February 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

Many deliberate disparaging interpretations about what happened leading up to and in Durban at the United Nation's - convened World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances have been widely propagated through the media. Surely, one intent is that dismal assessments will extend to future post-Durban work in the U.S. Some progressive anti-racist activists also summarized the Conference in less than positive terms, if not as a complete failure.

Idealistic hopes aside – what should, could, or might have been – the Realpolitik of every stage of conference proceedings reflected substantial fault lines between governments and NGOs over fundamental theoretical, ethical and policy approaches towards defining and eliminating racism and discrimination. The promising news is some productive collaboration, forged mostly among NGOs, and to a limited extent between NGOs and governments, portends advances in the period ahead.

The Durban conference confirmed that history is always an active, if not easily discernible, force loaded with social meanings and struggles that inform and shape life destinies. Facing history, in this case the history of racism and related intolerances, first and foremost involved governments making a choice between honest and just reckoning, or continued denial of injustice. The most powerful states chose calculated confrontation with civil society groups that are committed to defeat of racism and discrimination, and to demands upon governments and multilateral bodies for full achievement of civil, cultural and economic justice. In particular cases civil society groups also avoided honest and just reckoning in favor of unqualified solidarity.

The achievements of civil society groups with strained financial resources, brimming competing passions and widely uneven political experiences should not be undervalued. In less than two years of preparation, citizens from all across the world navigated barriers imposed by distance, economics, language, cultural-religious differences and emotions, and the burdensome, at times alienating, protocol of the United Nations and nation-states, in order to arrive in Durban sufficiently prepared and coordinated to engage the resources, rules and leverage of state power.

Powerful states that were often the historical architects of racism, and which now influence national and global administration of justice and general welfare and security of citizens, chose to use the World Conference to obfuscate or outrightly deny the gravity of their complicity in racial crimes against humanity, and resulting related advantages and disadvantages in life chances. This decision, more so than any controversial positions or actions advanced by NGOs, foreshadows the configuration of related issues and obstacles that in the near future will occupy U.S. anti-racist groups, particularly African-Americans and Afro-Latinos.

The U.S. government, in collusion with allies, and a complicit mainstream media, tried to define issues and terms of debate and resolutions, and to invalidate specific policy recommendations proposed by affected communities (i.e., proposed actions steps regarding reparations and affirmative action as means to address historical ills of racism and contemporary racial discrimination, and the doctrinaire slogan "Zionism is racism."). The constant U.S. threat and eventual walk-out from the conference failed to derail the positive influence and to some extent the negative impact of NGO agendas about which it objected.

Against great odds, the global influence of U.S. African-American NGO's was made apparent in the widely discussed policy positions on reparations and affirmative action adopted by some African nations and Diaspora communities, particularly Afro-Descendientes in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Despite fractious, but generally contained, encounters between more activist and conventional anti-racist forces in the U.S. Black community, adoption of positions pioneered and/or proposed by African-Americans was accomplished through disciplined, consistent hard work, and steely negotiations exhibited by individual U.S. anti-racist activists who forged collectives throughout the preparatory meetings and late-night caucuses, and exhausting drafting sessions. Disputes among African-Americans will, no doubt, surface in the period ahead, and in respective relations between some African-American groups with potential White and Jewish-American allies.

The interconnectedness of African-American hemispheric experiences with and struggles against racism was evident in collaborations among descendants of enslaved Africans. African and African Diaspora nations and communities in the Americas (including Afro-Cubans) readily identified historic heritage connections, but situated their distinct but related present-day struggles against racism and racial discrimination in the context of global Neo-Liberal economic and governance regimes that are undermining national sovereignty, self-determination and democracy, and wreaking particular havoc on the lives of the most marginalized and vulnerable citizens and communities--- the Indigenous, Afro-Descendants, the poor, and women and children. Africa-Diaspora nations and communities achieved that level of analysis and unity in action, despite challenges of language and cultural differences and related spats, as well as differences over terminology, and yet to be determined strategies and tactics (e.g., Reparations vs. A Marshall Plan for Africa).

In general, struggles and collaborations engaged in Durban indicate a probability of ongoing linkage and coordination of country or group-specific issues with like and similar regional and global counterparts. Action policies adopted by African NGOs and Afro-Descendant NGOs in Latin America and the Caribbean have direct implications for the post-Durban U.S. anti-racist agendas that African-Americans initiate (including Afro-Latino Americans in the U.S.) and which non-African-Americans and other people of color pursue in the future.

Post-Durban anti-racist work in the African-American community will require continued development of a more inclusive and/or differentiated socio-cultural definition of "Black"/"African-American," reflected in organized politics and specific policies that include common and distinct concerns of Afro-Latino citizens and residents, as well as new African immigrant citizens and residents whose numbers and ethnic and cultural diversity have increased tremendously since the 1965 Immigration Act. To that end, important openings were made, especially by U.S. Afro-Latinos, with traditional civil rights organizations, to consider the ethnic, national and cultural complexities of Black communities in addressing racism and discrimination.

Consolidation of U.S. anti-racist forces of all racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds in the months ahead will require candid discussion and clear-cut action steps to directly address and reconcile around a just approach to the splitting issue of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, and unjustified terrorist violence against Israeli Jews. This will be a particularly pressing and challenging responsibility, because the Palestinian cause, like the South African Anti-Apartheid struggle, has become a symbol of global injustice and U.S. complicity for many across racial, ethnic and ideological identities in the United States and around the world. Dealing with Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is further complicated by anti-Semitism in the ranks of U.S. progressives and the general U.S. population, differences among Jews and African-Americans on affirmative action policies and the lingering ill feelings among many Black activists about past Israeli government support of the South African apartheid regime.

The planned U.S. civil society court challenge to governments and corporations on reparations for slavery will be a defining strategy, closely watched around the globe. The case will certainly attract lawyers from Afro-Descendant communities in Brazil and other countries in the Americas, and open another stage of collaboration among Black and other civil rights and progressive lawyers broached in the Chile Prep Com and the Durban Conference.

Although organizing and deliberations leading up to the adoption of Conference declarations and the Programme of Action afforded NGOs opportunities to learn about and develop their skills in influencing statecraft, future implementation of particular action elements will require more political maturity and proficiency. A major challenge will be footing the bills for sustained future work. The contributions from the Ford Foundation were unquestionably pivotal to the advances made by NGOs up to and during the Durban Conference, especially given the pittance provided by the United States government. NGOs will have to become more self-sufficient in this next period, when the war against terrorism will demand "national unity" and divert attention from other pressing matters of justice.

Looking to the future of U.S.-based anti-racist work, we should understand that the Durban World Conference was more than a gathering of separate nation states and local, racial, ethnic and gender groups organized to address and negotiate resolutions of problems wrought from distinct histories of discrimination. Rather, preparatory meetings and two weeks of discussion, heated debate and hard-hitting negotiations in Durban demonstrated that resolution of historical and related present-day conflicts is in fact
significantly linked to the more systemic civil society global justice movement to harness and redirect new worldwide economic, political and military (police included) power which makes and/or extracts life-defining decisions and courses of action on a global scale.

None of the NGO conference participants could have predicted the specific horrific acts of 9-11. However, while condemning the attacks, many have strongly inferred that imperial and arrogant deportment exhibited in Durban by the U.S. government and many European governments and Canada (reinforced by similar behavior in other forums to address preventive measures and remedies to achieve global human security and justice) kindled the underlying complex of grievances related to those repulsive events. Officially sanctioned state violence, curtailment of civil liberties and the "robust assertion of the moral superiority of America's political and cultural institutions and mores" by the likes of pundit George Will, in response to the terror of 9-11, certainly will make it extremely difficult, but not impossible, to pursue post-Durban action programs.

The unjustifiable, abominable 9-11 attacks by atavistic terrorists generated resurgence of a conservative ideological and political offensive in the United States that is intended to chill, if not censor, critics of U.S. government domestic and foreign policies and cultural perspectives related to domestic and global grievances and injustices. Backward-looking conservative groups like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (founded by "bi-partisans" Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Lynne Chaney, former Humanities Council head and wife of the Vice President) have been emboldened to command all citizens to an ultra-patriotism and to attack or dismiss the contributions of multiculturalism to the advancement of domestic and global democracy. Others on the right, like Irving Kristol, use the events of 9-11 to advocate "an American liberal, imperial role" around the globe. This enveloping ideological and political environment will test the mettle of liberal and left progressives and fair-minded people of all persuasions to confront and eliminate racial injustice, overt and covert forms of terror, and stand forward in the creation of new democratic visions and practices.

James Early is Director Cultural Heritage Policy, Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and Board Chair of the Institute for Policy Studies.


James Counts Early (, Board Chair of the Institute for Policy Studies, Director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, served as a consultant on Cultural Democracy and Race to the International Human Rights Law Group World Conference projects with Afro-Descendant communities in Latin America and the Caribbean.


Join Our Email List
Search for:             
Join Our Email List