With International Day Against Racism taking place this week, Thomas Connolly gives us some words about the day and why it is still so prevalent today.
March 21st is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (or International Day Against Racism), part of the European Action Week Against Racism which runs from the 17th to 25th March. This year the theme of the day is Speaking Out Against Racism, and to mark the day events will be take place across Europe and the world that aim to highlight racial discrimination.
IDAR was first declared by the UN in response to the Sharpeville massacre that took place in South Africa in 1960. On 21st March of that year, police in Sharpeville opened fire on a peaceful anti-apartheid protest, killing sixty-nine demonstrators. In 1966 the General-Assembly of the UN proclaimed the first IDAR as a tribute to those protestors. Since then the day has grown in stature, and the awareness and co-operation it has produced has been instrumental in disbanding the institutionalised racism in South Africa and all over the world.
As several recent events have highlighted, the fight against racism is far from over. English football, to give an obvious example, has been rocked by recent cases of alleged racial abuse, despite numerous ongoing campaigns such as Kick It Out and the Football Against Racism in Europe network designed to combat racism in the sport. Another example is found in a recent report by the London School of Economics, which states that black people are up to thirty times more likely to be subjected to random ‘stop and search’ procedures by police throughout England. Meanwhile, in America, a District Court judge was recently forced to apologise to Barack Obama after he forwarded an e-mail to friends that contained a joke comparing the US president’s father to a dog.
These examples suggest that, while a lot of ground has been made up in recent years, in some sense the fight has become more tricky as it moves from battling overt to more subtle forms of racism. In most Western countries, people of all ethnic backgrounds have the same legal rights and entitlements as everyone else, but their socio-cultural treatment in many areas does not reflect this. Racism is widespread in the media, and racist ‘banter’ is common in entertainment, with Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson’s controversial comments during an episode shot in India last year providing a recent example of this. The number of ethnic minorities involved in politics and government, too, for example, is low. The challenge presented by this situation resembles that also faced by the feminist movement, which was highlighted just days ago on International Women’s Day. The issue faced by feminists is how to change peoples’ attitudes towards the social, cultural and political treatment of women. Similarly, the challenge faced by those who oppose racial discrimination is how to change entrenched attitudes towards people of all ethnic backgrounds. This means heightened awareness of issues confronting ethnic minorities, whether they be education, employment, migration, political representation and so on.
On the subject of politics, the global recession has also raised uncomfortable questions about racism and particularly the attitude towards immigrants in developed countries, wherein racism becomes bundled up with issues of class. As the recession forces more and more natives into low-paid work, they are placed in direct competition with incoming migrants, the vast majority of whom will end up working in low-level jobs. The tension caused by this competition fosters an attitude of ‘us versus them’, where immigrants are perceived as ‘stealing’ jobs from native workers or apparently scamming social welfare systems. This in turn leads to increased anti-immigration sentiment among the lowest paid workers of countries.
Populist political parties can harbour this sentiment, and the recent trend of increased support for right-wing parties running on anti-immigration and nationalist platforms throughout Europe can be partly accounted for in this way (for example, in 2005, when the Tory party ran their election campaign with the slogan “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration”). Xenophobia, ultra-nationalism, Islamophobia – all are on the rise throughout Western society, sometimes with tragic consequences, as seen last July when Norwegian Christian fundamentalist Anders Breivik shot dead sixty-nine young members of the Workers’ Youth League in Oslo and caused eight more deaths during the bombing of a government building, or the prolonged public support for the illegal American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the so-called ‘War on Terror’.
In Ireland we have thus far managed to avoid any overtly anti-immigration legislation, but as the economic woes look set to continue for the coming years, it is important to remain vigilant against xenophobic attitudes. The real challenge in combating this is to demonstrate the economic basis of these situations, a task that proves much more difficult than simply scapegoating a minority of the population who have neither the media nor political presence to combat their negative portrayal. This latter option has become an all-too-common political response to issues of migration, when what is really called for is greater support for multiculturalism and a strong opposition to unfair blaming or discriminatory treatment of ethnic minorities.
IDAR is an opportunity to mount this challenge. In Ireland, the Irish Network Against Racism (ENAR) are hosting a series of events throughout the country. ENAR also encourage as many people and organisations as possible to host their own events and offer a range of supports to that end – visit their page for more details: http://enarireland.org/ewar2012/. For more information about IDAR and events throughout Europe, visit United Against Racism: http://www.unitedagainstracism.org/.
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