Embracing an Interdependent World
Brazil, South Africa and the United States
More than a rejection of people’s epidermic color, racism is a denial of that people’s history and civilization; a rejection of its ethos, its total being. Diversity, however, is the universal condition of human existence, and the richness of human experience derives largely from interaction, intercommunication, and interchange... The truly revolutionary goal is not to eradicate differences … (but) to see that they are not made the cornerstones of oppression, inequality of opportunity or economic and social stratification.
--Abdias do Nascimento and Elisa do Nascimento
Comparative Human Relations Initiative
Southern Education Foundation
Moving Beyond Racism: A Necessity in the 21st Century
Brazil, South Africa and the United States are home to over 125 million people of African descent or appearance who have long been subject to racism, racial discrimination and other forms of inhumane treatment. Their effort to free themselves and their own nations from racism is one of the transcendent, hopeful human rights stories of the 20th century.
At the beginning of the 20th century, racism and White supremacy were the accepted order of the day among most Whites in Brazil, South Africa and the United States. One hundred years later, this is no longer the case. People of African descent, aided by diverse allies, have made significant progress toward securing equal rights and are demanding treatment equal to that enjoyed by Whites. Apartheid has ended in South Africa. Nelson Mandela is free, and South Africa has an inclusive, non-racial democratic government. In the Unites States, the civil rights movement --- and the laws and public policies it spawned --- have eroded legal racial segregation and helped to create a Black middle class. Brazil, a nation mistakenly called a "racial democracy," has begun to acknowledge the presence of racial discrimination against Afro Brazilians and color-coded inequality. Today, in these nations and around the world, there is a growing consensus that all human beings are entitled to basic human rights and no group of people are "superior" or "inferior" in intellect or worth to others due to "race."
Despite progress, racism and discrimination are not yet dead nor are their consequences. They persist as sources of suffering, violent conflict, poverty, social tension and wasted resources—human and financial—in Brazil, South Africa, the United States and around the world.
The changes wrought in the 20th century have given rise to new forms and manifestations of these antiquated and dysfunctional beliefs, policies and practices. And global forces are increasingly interacting with efforts to combat racism and discrimination, presenting new problems, challenges, and opportunities:
These trends suggest a common conclusion: it is time to leave racism behind. It is not only the right or moral thing to do, it is also a matter of economic and social necessity and enlightened self-interest, if a more peaceful and equitable world order is to be brought into being.
The work and publications of the Comparative Human Relations Initiative explore contemporary issues related to race and human rights in Brazil, South Africa and the United States, document changes, and consider the implications for future efforts to move us all "beyond racism."
The Comparative Human Relations Initiative, a project begun in l995 by the Southern Education Foundation of Atlanta, Georgia, a public charity, is a unique collaboration among peoples and institutions in Brazil, South Africa and the United States. In partnership with the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, the Office of the Dean of the Humanities at the University of Cape Town, and an informal coalition of individuals and groups in Brazil, the Initiative has held meetings in each country, conducted extensive research and developed publications to share its findings with a broad international audience. The work of the Initiative is guided by an International Working and Advisory Group of people from diverse disciplines and walks of life from the three countries.
The Initiative’s aim is to combat all forms of prejudice, including unfair discrimination based on color, race, ethnicity, descent, gender, or national origin. These and other forms of prejudice are linked and interactive and must be uprooted together. While the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion establishes that all human beings are more alike than different and that "race" is not a marker of either character or intellectual capacity, perceived race or appearance continue to varying degrees to serve as criteria of social validation in these nations.
The use of a comparative lens is useful for understanding racism and how to combat it. A comparison does not imply similarity where it does not exist; it may underscore difference. Comparisons help us to see more clearly in the reality of others that which we may fail to see or misconstrue in our own.
The Initiative is also involved in efforts to publicize and promote engagement with the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance to be held in South Africa in 200l. This event will provide an important opportunity to develop global responses to racism and discrimination, which are, after all, violations of international human rights norms and instruments and domestic laws in Brazil, South Africa, and the United States, among other nations.
Three Nations at the Crossroads:
Brazil, South Africa and the United States
Brazil, South Africa and the United States are democratic nations with large, multi-racial and multi-ethnic populations. Although these nations are among the world’s most important experiments in how diversity and democracy can work for the common good, legacies of past slavery and colonialism and present effects of past and present discrimination continue to affect the dynamics of opportunity allocation. Gross disparities in the well-being of "Whites" and "Blacks" are everywhere apparent.
Brazil has a current population of over 176 million people. It was a Portuguese colony that imported more African slaves than any other nation in the Western Hemisphere and was the last to abolish slavery (l888) after almost 450 years of exploitation.
Today, Brazil has the largest population of African descendants outside the continent of Africa. Its economy is among the world’s ten largest. It is also among the world’s most unequal societies measured by income mal-distribution. The richest 20% of the population (persons whose appearance resembles a European phenotype) possess two thirds of the national income; the poorest 20% (primarily Brown or Black) receive less than 3%.
South Africa, a nation of over 41 million people, experienced colonial and national regimes of White supremacy for over 350 years. People of European descent created the modern world’s most elaborate system of racial oppression, systematically violating Black and "Coloured" Africans’ human rights in every way imaginable. These policies were ended in 1994 with free elections and the installation of a genuinely democratic government, but their legacy of inequality, impoverishment, distrust and underdevelopment persist to harm millions.
South Africa has one of Africa’s largest economies, but almost two thirds of South Africa’s total income goes to the top 20% of the population, while the poorest 20 % (all of whom are Black or "Coloured") receive only 4%.
In the United States, slavery lasted over 240 years, only to be replaced by a system of White supremacy that embedded both legal segregation and racial discrimination into American life for another century. A spine of significant anti-discrimination laws has been in place less than 40 years and enforcement efforts continue.
The United States is the world’s sole remaining superpower with great wealth and resources. Still, the top 20% of the population receive almost one third of the nation’s income, while the lowest 20%, where a disproportionate number of African Americans are grouped, receive 5%. The inequality gap is widening.
In all three nations, women of all races suffer from diverse forms of unfair treatment and discrimination. While White women tend to be more privileged than Black, both groups have common problems in urgent need of response.
Racism and sexism are interwoven in the cultures, mores, histories, institutional arrangements, practices and laws of these nations to varying degrees. Clearly efforts to combat racism and sexism must continue with fresh vigor and new and better ways to erode the negative effects must be found in the rapidly changing global village.
Common Lessons About "Race"
Race is an Idea
Most people from time to time use the idea of "race" or race-related appearance as shorthand for identification of themselves or others. But few could provide a scientifically defensible definition of what "race" is or is not.
Science teaches us that there is only one race, the "human race." We are all the same beneath the skin. Superficial characteristics such as color, hair texture or phenotype have nothing to do with intelligence or good character. If Black people are disproportionately poor and Whites are disproportionately advantaged in Brazil, South Africa or the United States, it does not mean that Blacks are "inferior" or Whites are "superior." It means that the dominant group has not seen fit to share resources with others who look differently and/or has erected barriers to equal enjoyment of societal rights and privileges by Blacks. Nurture, not nature, is responsible for gross inequalities in well being between Whites and Blacks.
Whether or not one accepts responsibility for creating the racial hierarchy in Brazil, South Africa or the United States, all must share responsibility to undo racism’s effects. Otherwise, we become part of the problem.
Color and the Construction of "Race"
There are many forms of identity. Racial identity may be generated from within or imposed by others upon us. Although the concept of race has limited scientific content, race and appearance-related characteristics have real effects on people’s lives.
In Brazil, miscegenation between Whites and Africans (primarily White men and vulnerable African women) was sanctioned and encouraged in order to "whiten" the population. Unlike the United States, there was no legal segregation following the abolition of slavery in Brazil. Based on disparities in power and sexism, the practice of interracial sex continued over time, bolstering the myth that Brazil was a great "racial democracy," and creating the reality that dark-skinned people are exploited and denied opportunities routinely enjoyed by their lighter-skinned counterparts. In other words, Brazil became a great "pigmentocracy," not so much by law, as by practice and culture.
In America and South Africa, the idea of "race" is tied to lineage. For example, irrespective of appearance, in the United States, if you have a demonstrable degree of African descent, you are considered "African American." Today, most African Americans are of "mixed" lineage (e.g., they have ancestors who were European, African and/or Native American). However, they are deemed by most people to be Black, no matter how they actually look. In South Africa, the majority of the population is Black African, but there are also people, many of mixed lineage from Europe, Africa and/or Asia who are considered "Coloured," as distinct from Black.
Race and Racism: Different Forms, Similar Consequences
However race is defined, privilege and poverty are color-coded in Brazil, South Africa and the United States. The data of disparity speak for themselves. People who look like Europeans have historically substantially monopolized social, political and economic power and resources. The pattern of Black subservience and White dominance has only recently been called into question.
Many people try to turn a blind eye to the fact of race or "skin privilege." Racism becomes "invisible" to them through denial. But wishing racism away does make it disappear. In fact, it makes racism more difficult to combat. "It is very difficult to awaken a man pretending to be asleep," Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us. Nor is an aspiration to "color blindness" an action plan for how to eliminate the actual consequences of racial discrimination and disadvantage.
Apartheid’s legacy in South Africa illuminates the effects of unbridled racism and discrimination: injustice and inequality; poverty and an underdeveloped economy; a narrow consumer base; shortages of skilled labor; lack of public revenues and private investment needed to construct an adequate social safety net; and violence and repression. Whether in the ghettos of the United States, the favelas of Brazil, or the townships of South Africa, racism’s cost is self-evidently too high.
The Only Constant is Change
Change and progress in combating racism and its insidious effects are possible.
International sociologist Gunnar Myrdal once used the metaphor of a downward, "vicious circle" to describe how factors such as race, poverty, and lack of education interact to oppress people of African descent. But he also spoke of a "virtuous circle" by which transformation renders good results. When many factors interlock, change can set off a chain reaction for good or bad.
Many factors have interacted in Brazil, South Africa and the United States to oppress both women of all races and people of African descent. The list is not small: greed, disparities in firepower, use of state power to sanction subordination, environmental factors and advantages of location among others. Yet, many "virtuous" elements also have interlocked to create a powerful momentum toward positive change and liberation. In increasing numbers, people of African descent have begun to climb the economic and political ladders. They have more power and access to resources than ever before and the enhanced capacity to challenge racism, sexism and discrimination in their own nations and elsewhere. There is a growing body of knowledge about public policies and private actions-–law development, reform and enforcement, antipoverty efforts, investment in women’s health and broadening educational opportunity--that can be effective remedies to uproot racial discrimination, poverty and inequality. Technological advances can facilitate the sharing of ideas and collaboration across old barriers. The will of people of African descent or appearance determined to be free remains strong, ensuring that intelligence, commitment and devotion to human equality will be brought to bear to current and future problems.
Global changes are also creating new imperatives for societies and systems to change and to move beyond racism.
Imperatives for A New, Interdependent World
As the new millennium begins, emergent global forces are vying to shape the future. Some threaten to divide and impoverish and create "winners" and "losers," while others present possibilities of a future in which norms of inclusion can become an economic and practical necessity and serve the common good.
Global Economy and Technological Revolution
Whether one welcomes or dreads the emerging global economy, the triumph of global capitalism, or the advances in technology that are transforming the world, the changes wrought are upon us. We have no choice but to strive to combat negative effects and take advantage of the positive.
One thing is certain: in the global economy, the poverty, poor health and underemployment and under education of people of African descent are liabilities that will retard achievement of national development goals. Recent estimates suggest that Brazil, South Africa and the United States could gain a combined increase in economic productivity equal to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the world’s 15th largest economy, if they uprooted pervasive racial discrimination that has pushed people of African descent to the economic margins. Each nation needs the talent and skills of Blacks and other disadvantaged people in order to compete effectively in the global marketplace for investment and economic growth.
Government, civil society institutions, businesses and others all have a role and obligation to play in pressing for stepped up responses to the discrimination directed toward Blacks. Promoting Black advancement is good for business, good for national growth, good for Blacks and good for all of the peoples of the nations of which they are a part.
Migration and Population Changes
In Brazil, South Africa and the United States, the White population is declining in size and growing older. Black and non-White populations are growing faster and are younger. By the middle of the 21st century, Whites will be a numerical minority in each nation, if these trends continue. As a result, in the future many Whites will near retirement and become pensioners in nations that depend upon Black and other non-White workers to fund social security programs and to sustain the national productivity that generates resources for private retirement funds.
These trends raise at least two important questions: First, will the predominantly Black and non-White workforce of the future possess sufficient health, education, skills and training to drive a productive and expanding economy that adequately underwrites the growth of retirement funds and benefits for the disproportionately large number of White retirees? Second, will the predominately non-White voting age population in each country be willing to support such pensions for the older White population?
These are not hypothetical questions. They speak powerfully to the need for investment in the education and well being of Blacks and other vulnerable groups today in order to ensure a better future for everyone in the interdependent world of tomorrow. They suggest the importance of combating racism so that in the future, when Whites and others now dominant will be members of minority groups, a new cultural and legal order based on fairness and non-discrimination will prevail. This is in the best interest of Black, White—all people in these nations.
Human Rights Movements
The global movement for human rights is one of the most profound, animating ideas of our time. The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 in response to racism and genocide. Racial justice is at the core of this world-wide movement that is gaining force.
Today, in Brazil, after decades of military rule, activism, and a return to democratic governance, a " National Programme of Human Rights" has been announced by the Federal Government. This Programme recognizes the discrimination from which Afro Brazilians and others suffer and acknowledges human rights as a proper concern of government. This is an important cornerstone for the development of policies and cultural, social, economic and political change to advance the status of Afro Brazilians.
The demise of apartheid in South Africa resulted from the struggles of the South African people, but their efforts were aided by activism of people and organizations around the world that opposed that regime. This experience provides a foretaste of the power that the international human rights movement can and may muster in the future.
The new South Africa is grounded in a constitutional commitment to the fundamental equality of all people and a determination to never again permit racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice barred by international human rights norms to flourish. The challenge that lies ahead is to imbue people long used to either racial privilege or disadvantage with a sense of a shared future, to erode old antipathies, effect concrete improvements in the material circumstances and life chances of the Black majority, and promote a new national South African identity that transcends race.
In the United States, where many people have long believed human rights norms have limited utility, there is growing awareness that the human rights movement in fact is a very important component of efforts to combat racism and sexism. "Women’s rights are human rights," said American activists at the United Nations World Conference in Beijing in 1995. Activists are pressing the United States Government to ratify human rights conventions and honor their content, as the world prepares for the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in 2001. As protests by Americans against "sweat shop labor," policies of international agencies and globalization mount, clearly the international human rights movement is a force with which to reckon.
For the first time in history, a majority of the world’s people live under governments professing democratic principles. "Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary" observed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1960, referring to all of humanity.
Racism undercuts democratic principles and practices by violating the precepts of equality, fairness and accountability that give democratic governance meaning. It fuels disrespect for the rule of law and corrupts democratic processes. There is also a growing body of literature that suggests a strong linkage between economic growth and development and the presence of open democratic governance that allows all to develop and compete on an equal playing field.
Brazil and South Africa are relatively young democratic states that are in the process of consolidation. The United States, an older democracy in form, has in fact only begun in the last 40 years to systematically dismantle its underpinning of second class citizenship for women, African Americans and other vulnerable groups. In all three nations still face the urgent challenge to broaden and sustain civic engagement and demonstrate to their people in practice the promise that democratic theory provides.
In the 21st century, racially disparities and the international divide between "North" and "South" will test democratic governments. In Brazil, South Africa and the United States, democracy will reach its full force and meaning only if each nation replaces social estrangement with social justice.
Women’s movements are pursuing gender equality as a fundamental right, simple justice, and one of the most effective means of improving the world’s standards of living and productivity across boundaries of country, race and ethnicity. These movements will increasingly lead nations to recognize an historical truth: racism and sexism are "different masks of the same sorrow."
Women constitute a majority of the world’s population, but as Pregs Govender, a member of South Africa’s Parliament, notes, they also "form the majority of the unemployed, illiterate, homeless, poor, violated and most of those who care for the young, the old and the disabled." For this reason, in South Africa and elsewhere, the conditions and opportunities afforded to women are a true measure of how societies are addressing major structural problems of deprivation and exclusion.
In Brazil, South Africa and the United States, women of different "races" deal every day with common problems and changes—including old and new attitudes about gender, reproductive rights, changes in family structure, urbanization, children’s education, and jobs. In the new century, nations will achieve equitable economic and social development, sustainable population growth, genuine caring for children and the elderly, and nonviolence in their homes and cultures only if they aggressively advance gender equity.
Peace and Reconciliation
Racism has always had a ready potency to create deadly conflict. As global distances shrink, urban areas enlarge, and international immigration increases, many nations will face new dangers. Their cities and suburbs will receive new or unfamiliar populations, perhaps juxtaposed for the first time, with cultures, languages and habits that are different and may appear to be incompatible or even dangerous. Such developments threaten to escalate sharply the world’s inter-group conflicts.
Brazil, South Africa and the United States stand at the vortex of these worldwide trends. They must find ways to reconcile disagreements and human differences without violence. Their future will help to determine in the coming century whether human diversity will be the engine of social progress or the basis for continued, unremitting social conflict.
Most nations have limited mechanisms to bring diverse groups together to understand one another or face the contemporary consequences of the past. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a comprehensive and ambitious effort to document racism’s effects and provide a forum to help the nation’s people face the ugliness of the past and reconcile the hurt and loss attributable to apartheid. With limited time and tools, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its report in 1998, concluding: "Reconciliation requires a commitment, especially by those who have benefited and continue to benefit from past discrimination, to the transformation of unjust inequalities and dehumanizing poverty."
In the United States, President William Clinton’s Initiative on Race attempted in 1997-98 to create "reasoned dialogue, and not divisive debate, that ultimately will ease the fault line caused by race." In Brazil, President Fernando Enrique Cardoso convened an Interministerial Working Group to study and make recommendations about governmental responses to racial discrimination.
Though laudable, these efforts reflect the difficulties of reconciling differences between persons of European or African descent or appearance, where deep social wrongs are implicated. As Charles V. Hamilton, Columbia University Professor Emeritus, observed: "It is not so much the truths of the past that are in dispute, but whether such truths are really relevant to future policies of reconciliation."
Truth telling about each nation’s racial past—and present—remains essential. It is not a direct route to peace and reconciliation. It is no substitute for social justice, but it is a prerequisite.
Implications for Activism
The implications of the developments and trends highlighted above for future activism to combat racism are many. In the three nations, the strategies to combat racism have been as varied as its diverse manifestations.
Among the types of efforts being mounted in Brazil, South Africa and the United States to combat racism and discrimination are the following:
This list is far from all-inclusive of the efforts needed to redress centuries of racism and inequality. For example, along with anti-discrimination efforts such as these, antipoverty efforts in all three nations are necessary. Race, poverty and class are interacting factors that affect the well being of people of African descent, and comprehensive approaches that combat all aspects of the disadvantage are necessary. Individuals, businesses, governments and the institutions of a civil society --- trade unions, religious bodies, colleges and universities, consumer or civic organizations, public interest law and policy institutions, philanthropies, and professional associations, among others — all have a role to play in reducing discrimination based on race and the interconnected problems of poverty and inequality.
Unfortunately, many of these groups themselves still reflect antiquated and exclusionary mores and social practices. They need to explore ways to become contemporary, more inclusive and representative of all the tapestry of diverse peoples that comprise their nations and global community of which they are a part.
Embracing An Interdependent Future
The world is changing—it will be even "smaller" and its people and nations more interdependent in the 21st century. Racism, sexism and other forms of inhumanity and discrimination will not go away unless and until people and nations resolve to change and then commit, in ways large and small, to transformation.
There is no single solution to the problem of racism. There are only many solutions. This means that there are things that each of us can do to combat racism. History teaches us that change comes about through the cumulative efforts of many people, of all walks of life, who understand that freedom and human rights are indivisible.
Nelson Mandela once wrote:
No one is borne hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must be learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite….Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.
We have choices to make. Whether we believe that we created the problems caused by racism or engage in discrimination or not, we all share responsibility and have an interest in combating it.
We can work now to create shared and workable futures or continue the mindless conflict that has robbed so many of their lives and well being in the past. This juncture in time can become a defining moment for good, if we remember our past honestly, imagine our future boldly and put the angels of our better nature to work as real world architects.
The hope for a future beyond racism rests upon what each of us is willing to do in our lives, our institutions, our countries and the world. We live in different societies, but increasingly in the same world.
Members, International Working and Advisory Group
The Comparative Human Relations Initiative
Peter Bell, CARE
Ana Maria Brasileiro, InterAmerican Development Bank
Lynn Walker Huntley, The Southern Education Foundation
Wilmot James, University of Cape Town
Shaun Johnson, Independent Newspapers Holdings Limited
Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, University of Sao Paulo
Edna Roland, Fala Preta
Khehla Shubane, Nelson Mandela Foundation
Ratnamala Singh, National Research Foundation
Gloria Steinem, Ms. Magazine
Franklin A. Thomas, TFF Study Group
Tom Uhlman, Lucent Technologies
The International Working and Advisory Group has provided guidance to the Comparative Human Relations Initiative since its inception. The information set forth above highlights this body’s Overview Report.