The World Conference against Racism and Obama

Awe Atingdui: The Durban Review Conference, which was held in Geneva, Switzerland generated a lot of buzz globally. This conference is of course, not a stranger to controversy. The first conference, which was called World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and related Intolerance, was held in Durban, South Africa in 2001, and it too was mired in controversy. At the center of the debate was language included in the document that singled out Israel and which resulted in Israel and the US to leave the conference. But that was then, under Pres. Bush. Now, the US, under Pres. Obam,a, together with other Western Nations boycotted this year’s conference. This position by the Obama administration, of course, infuriated many, especially Blacks in America. I have to admit, the irony in this matter, led me to initial disappointment as well. I am still disappointed but not for the reasons that others are. However, after a more thorough scrutiny of the issues, especially the unspoken ones, my disappointment has waned. Many in the African-American community, especially activists and grassroots organizations, were disappointed in Obama because they felt that the participation of the US, under an African-American President, should have been a given. They also felt disappointed because they perceived the decision to boycott the conference to be a result of the Obama administration succumbing to the objections of certain interest groups. I think both of these reasons form valid basis for disappointment. However, one of the major reasons why my disappointment has waned is the gross exaggeration of the relevance and effectiveness of this conference to resolve the grievances of those who are still disappointed. A major handicap of the strategies and methodologies employed by these many grassroots and activist groups is that they are stuck in the realm of symbolism. These groups seem to relish events where histrionics is not a means to a meaningful objective but an end in itself. The more virulent the rhetoric, the more ‘for the people’ one is perceived to be. Never mind that a check list of concrete achievements for these ‘for the people’ individuals very rarely has any checks on it. This brings me to the Review Conference against Racism. As much as the goals of the conference are noble and certainly relevant, its ability to move countries to enact domestic policies and affect social attitudes to eliminate or significantly reduce these ills is very close to if not completely zero. So, why so much fanfare about a conference with a lot of bark but no teeth? Furthermore, Pres. Obama touched on a highly important but ignored truth, which I have personally found troubling about this conference. Pres. Obama noted that the conference, in part, was being conducted in a “hypocritical” manner. Like I stated, some of the grievances have merit and calls for more critical assessment of policies advanced by the US and Israel are appropriate. But, I cannot help but acknowledge the hypocrisy by some of the most vociferous leaders who sling the most accusations but preside over countries with some of the worst human, race, gender rights in modern times. Yes, the US has a legacy of slavery and discrimination, the effects of which are evident even today. But even so, Blacks in America enjoy more rights, privileges, and societal inclusion than Blacks in Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Brazil or even Cuba! Blacks in America form only 12% of the population but now one of us has been elected President of the country. Blacks in America feature prominently in US society albeit with a heavy concentration in sports and entertainment. Compare this to Brazil, a country of 160 million people and has the largest Black population of any country outside of Africa. 50% of Brazil’s population is Black, yet blacks are almost totally absent from positions of power - from all levels of government, from congress, senate, the judiciary, the higher ranks of the civil service and the armed forces. In Cuba, where by conservative estimates, 30% of the population is Black, they to experience discrimination and societal exclusion. The most lucrative sector in Cuba, the Tourism sector, is virtually the exclusive preserve of White Cubans. Black Cubans experience racial profiling, and a higher incarceration rate . In the Middle East, Blacks and Women are treated as second class citizens, without a channel to transmit grievances. In Iran and Iraq, Blacks, referred to as Zanj (from which the Island Zanzibar derives its name) live in poverty, discrimination and segregation. I could go on and list countries that are leading the charges against some countries at the conference but who themselves have worst records when it comes to dealing with and eliminating institutional racism, sexism and xenophobia. As African-Americans, we need to stop giving passes and making excuses for leaders and countries who treat their Black, Female and minority populations with the same disdain that we encountered and fought against, just because that leader makes strong rhetorical attacks on the governent of America. The philosophy of “My enemy’s enemy is my friend” is a fallacious philosophy and even a hypocritical one if your enemy’s enemy is practicing the same type of discrimination you are rebelling against. Ultimately, the conference has no real power, and in the end racism cannot be eliminated through a conference. Racism may always exist but the ability of racism to limit and confine the object of racism is only possible when that object is an economic underdog. Thus, our ‘escape’ from the restrictive effects of racism lie in our ability to create a parallel examples of healthy and functioning communities. This entails adopting the discipline required to obtain advanced education, start and expand businesses, set up indigenous pools of capital etc. All these conferences, where we gather to engage in verbal dramatics is nothing but Def Jam Revolution on HBO. By Awe Atingdui To read more from the author please visit
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  • Chicago-Midwest
    Is this the same conference that representatives from nearly half of the countries represented walked out on
    Imma Dinner Jacket?

    I think we need to spin some different arguments
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