Two decades after the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action from the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in 2001, International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on 21 March each year, is a reminder of the persistence of systemic racial discrimination that continues to strangle the rights of people of African descent to equal services, quality education, decent work and meaningful participation. This Year the theme is appropriately Youth Standing up against Racism.
Recognizing the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration, sparks a reflection on a period of my career when I had recently joined the staff of the CARICOM Secretariat (in 2000) and thrust into a coordinating role in the preparatory consultations for the Region's participation in the September 2001 Durban Conference in South Africa. The CARICOM Delegation was led by Hon Mia Mottley, then Minister of Education, Youth and Culture of Barbados. It included representatives from several governments and NGOs across the Caribbean region, UWI, and significantly, the recently formed CARICOM Youth Ambassadors (CYAs). Having to coordinate and present the CARICOM Secretariat's paper at a joint CARICOM-UWI Forum at UWI St Augustine in March 2000, created a deep awareness of the entrenched harms inflicted by racism over generations.
The 2000 CARICOM paper called upon States to honour the memory of victims of the historical injustices of slavery, the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and apartheid. It recognized that the contemporary genesis for the world’s commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on 21 March, is because on that day in 1960, the police in Sharpeville, South Africa, opened fire and killed Youth leader Steve Bikko among 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid "pass laws".
The South Africa atrocity converged with and amplified the advocacy for the Black Power movement in the USA inspired by Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael of the Student Coordinating Committee and Angela Davis, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party. The Black Power Movement took root in the Caribbean in Trinidad and Tobago (1968-1969), coinciding with my first year on the staff of UWI St Augustine. It provides a vivid reminder of the power of youth leadership of Geddes Granger (later, Makakndal Daaga) and Khafra Khambon of the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) which was aligned to the UWI St Augustine Guild of Undergraduates that sparked major social reforms introduced by the PNM government led by Dr Eric Williams. The historical events, their socio-economic and political results are aptly analyzed in Selwyn Ryan memoirs, Ryan Recalls reviews in GOFAD by Compton Bourne (11/11/2019). It helps us to understand the ripple effects of Apartheid through the Sharpeville protests, the Black Power movement in the USA and its contagious effects in the Caribbean. Important fragments are the Rodney riots led by UWI Students following his deportation from Jamaica and the emergence of Rosie Douglas who led the students protest at Sir George William University (now Concordia University) See Micheal O West History vs. Historical Memory: Rosie Douglas, Black Power on Campus, and the Canadian Color Conceit (2017)
The tenor of the international Black Power movement and its militancy differed from the earlier nonviolent protests in the USA. Among them were the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King in the winter of 1959, resulting in the arrest of Rosa Parks and the March to over the Edmund Pettus Bridge that crossed the Alabama River out of Selma led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams on “Bloody Sunday” March 7, 1965 . The latter event is recorded in detail in Chapter 5 Bloody Sunday in John Lewis, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Civil Rights Movement 1998.
The case of the US is the starkest evidence of the long history of humanity's struggle to end racism and racial discrimination. Events over the past year signal a critical moment afflicting the entire world and have heightened the urgency of action to end the scourge of racism, which in words of the Antonio Gutterres Secretary-General, "violates the UN Charter and debases us all as human beings”. He is of course referring to the escalation of deep rage at the violence, injustice, abuse and unfairness faced by millions as protests rock cities around the world.
This feature is compounded by the spread of the Coronavirus in early 2020, as a parallel pandemic was unleashed to that of hatred, violence and fear against certain ethnicities and nationalities. It quickly became clear that stark inequities, sometimes rooted in racism, had subjected minorities to a significantly higher risk of infection and death.
Young people again massively showed their support at the 2020 Black Lives Matter marches, which drew millions of demonstrators worldwide. On the streets, groundswells of youth - mostly teens and twenty-somethings - came together to protest against racial injustice. On social media, they mobilized participation, calling on their peers to speak out, and to stand up for the equal rights and justice for all.
The socio economic impact of COVID-19 points to very stark racial disparities. In the USA for example, infection, hospitalization and death rates amongst people of African descent are respectively triple, five times and double the rates seen amongst white Americans. American life expectancy dropped a full year due to the pandemic – but the life expectancy of Black Americans declined by 2.7 years. In the United Kingdom, women and men of African descent were four times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people. The pandemic's impact on the livelihoods and income of people from minority communities has been massively disproportionate, in every region.
Pulitzer Prize Winner Isabel Wilkerson in her recent book, Caste:The Origins of Our Discontent, explains that the pervasiveness of the caste is not limited to India but also applicable to racism in the USA. She states that: “long before the the American Revolution, a human hierarchy had evolved on the contested soil of what would become the United States, a concept of birthright, the temptation of entitled expansion that would set the world’s first democracy and with it then ranking of human value and usages”. But most important is her drawing on the comprehensive work of Swedish social economist, Gunner Myrdal. He concluded that America created a caste system to maintain a color line that to the ordinary white man functions to uphold the caste system for keeping the negro in his place. In other words for Myrdal the most accurate term to describe the workings of American society is not race but caste.
Wilkerson's brilliant book provides the answers to questions asked in previous GOFAD blogs such as: How did Donald Trump receive so many votes? What is the link between cultism and racism? Why is white supremacy so pervasive? It also explains the vulgar display of white nationalism and white insurrectionism on January 6, 2021 inspired by Donald Trump and for which with complicity, Republicans in both the House of Representatives and Senate conspired against convicting him.
Youth Leadership Taking a Stand
It is against this general background that youth leadership is required to find the formula for taking action. Among the broad range of activities on which to pivot the following are put forward for consideration:
I vividly recall the tragedy in the 1962 film of "To Kill a Mockingbird,” with Gregory Peck based on Lee Harper’s book which no doubt represents thousands of true-life stories just like it, that could only come in a racist society. The black man in the story clearly could not have committed the crimes of which he was accused, but the all-white jury simply would not acquit him, instead sending him to prison, where he would be shot "trying to escape." These types of stories are part of the hateful legacy of racism that have persisted to day in George Floyd, Breana Taylor and others, who, except for racism, did not have to die.
In her heart-wrenching debut memoir, Why the Caged Birds Sing, Maya Angelou shares her experience with racism and bigotry and how she turned to literature and her own inner strength to help her survive. For those who need their lessons couched in story, you can't go wrong with Maya Angelou.
Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.