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Reflections on Durban and the war: Rinku Sen compares U.S. behavior at the World Conference Against Racism and after 9/11.

Before September 11, the big news among people who cared about race was the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa. Although that conference has been largely overlooked as the country was swept up by that day's attacks and the subsequent war on Afghanistan, Durban events point to important lessons for activists. The broadened definition of racism embraced by the WCAR enabled the inclusion of anti-Semitism as a racial issue, and, ironically, worked to position the Bush Administration's racist response to terrorism. Before and after September 11, the Administration has attempted to redefine the real racists and control the debate to build public support for its actions. Before and after September 11, activists have learned that the line between domestic and foreign policy is thinner than we thought, requiring us to take on new strategies.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Durban was the inclusion of "xenophobia and related intolerances," which raised the prospects of many oppressed groups. Because racial and ethnic groups from around the world have been shut out of other UN conferences, WCAR provided an important opportunity to hit the world stage. Thus, groups refrained their grievances and struggles to fir into a frame of structural racism. So, caste, national origin, forms of religious repression, efforts to promote indigenous rights, and anti-colonial struggles were all framed racially.

Clearly, anti-Semitism fits into this framework as a related intolerance, a connection that has been made by many racial justice activists in the U.S. However, the Administration used that opening to control the Durban debate and set the stage for a racist resurgence in foreign and domestic policy. Early in the conference preparation, the U.S. government threatened to boycott the conference on the premise that the insistence of Arab states in addressing the Israeli government's military behavior constituted anti-Semitic racism. U.S. government delegates explicitly communicated this frame to other governments, U.S. non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the press. Deborah Carr, director of the Interagency Task Force on the WCAR told U.S. NGOs, "We can't participate in a conference that is in itself racist." With its concentration on protecting Israel from Arab criticism, the Administration advanced Islamaphobic stereotypes of Arab nations as extremist anti-Semites, anti-Americans and bad team players withi n the UN.

The U.S. media picked up this characterization and ran with it. On August 16, the New York Times ran an editorial entitled "A Mean Spirited UN Conference" defending the U.S. boycott on the basis of Middle East issues. "Arab countries are irresponsibly proposing that the conference single out Israel for criticism...The Bush Administration is rightly incensed by these efforts and must use its influence to block them."

The media focus only got narrower during the conference itself. Manning Marable, professor of history and political science at Columbia University, said his attempts to work with a New York Times reporter to place stories reflecting the variety of WCAR issues were thwarted by her editor's daily insistence on "more about Israel and Palestine."

While the press accused Arabs of hijacking the conference and distracting the UN from dealing with legitimate racial issues such as the struggles of Dalits and Roma, few in the mainstream shifted the blame to the shoulders of the U.S. government. The threat and actual boycott created a red herring forcing U.S. NGOs away from focusing on racial disparities in criminal justice and education, indigenous and immigrant rights. The most common question I encountered from NGO and government delegates from other countries was not "what are the problems you deal with," but "what do you think of your government's boycott?"

Defining the Terms

Our lack of ability to use the world stage to discuss U.S. racism left an untimely hole in the racial discourse, a hole that would prove easy for the Administration to exploit only days after the conference ended. There is no question that the events of September 11 took a terrible toll on this country. However, the Bush administration lost no time in converting the grief, outrage, and deep need to "do something" felt by many Americans into a message of racially based vengeance. In part, the Administration was able to take racist action because it had captured the terms of the debate in Durban.

President Bush has used the insidious imagery of an evil (though not godless) enemy to generate unity and support for the war and these measures. The Administration immediately instituted measures to arrest-without-charge over 1,200 people of Arab descent, refused to release their names and refused them access to families or attorneys. Despite Bush's perfunctory exhortations to United States residents that this war "is not against Islam, not against Arab people," the public has happily switched its racial animus from blacks and Latinos to Arabs and South Asians. Gallup found that 58 percent of Americans believe that Arab Americans should be subject to more intensive security checks and 49 percent wanted them to have special ID cards. A third of respondents to a PSA/Newsweek poll thought that Arabs should be put under special surveillance, while 31 percent of respondents to a Harris CNN/Time poll thought that Arab-Americans should be held in camps. Since Americans don't know the difference between Arabs and South Asians, both sets of immigrants have encountered rising rates of hate crimes.

Controlling Dissent

A central feature of the Administration's strategy has been to shut down dissent--in Durban with the boycott, and at home with cultural and institutional pressure during the war. Prominent figures, including Congresswoman Barbara Lee, writer Susan Sontag, and actor Danny Glover, have been soundly criticized for suggesting restraint or questioning the loss of civil liberties. Local police departments that refused to cooperate with the FBI in rounding up thousands of Arab Americans and immigrants have been named obstructionist. The rhetoric of patriotism has also had a chilling effect on political dissent and protest on other racial issues, from education to labor negotiations. All over the country, grassroots organizations rushed to "adapt" their militant direct action tactics to the new atmosphere. Individuals and foundations have redirected their charitable dollars to help victims of the attacks rather than anti-poverty and civil rights organizations.

Lessons to Take Home

Racial justice activists should learn two lessons right now from these experiences. First, we need to erase the line in our minds between U.S. foreign policy and domestic policy. 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 U.S. policies and procedures, is a consistent modus operandi. Erasing that line would prepare us to deal with the racist dimensions of both, whenever and wherever they get used against us.

Second, we need to work toward a more unified racial justice movement. We were vocal, but largely ineffective in ending the U.S. boycott of the WCAR. And we have been totally unprepared for the rapidity, severity and broad swath of the Bush/Ashcroft post-September 11 barrage. African American and Latino organizations have been 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 racial discrimination and civil liberties violations. While all of this important work needs to be done, it has to take place within the context of a larger movement and unified strategy.

When push came to shove in 2001, U.S. activists lacked both the organizational mechanisms and the political solidarity to mount a response. It doesn't always have to be this way. To change the balance of power between us and our government, we need to apply our most disciplined and creative minds to new ways of working together.

Rinku Sen is the publisher or ColorLines and the former director of the Transnational Racial Justice Initiative.
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Author:Sen, Rinku
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
Words:1342
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