New Internationalist

Equality Watch: Race & Ethnicity

Issue 364

If there was one great victory in the struggle for racial equality over the past two decades it was the dismantling of South Africa’s apartheid system in 1994.

Generally, though, progress has been slow, and in places it has gone into sharp reverse with explosions of racially or ethnically based conflict. In Rwanda and the Balkans political leaders mobilized supporters to attack other ethnic groups. Inter-ethnic clashes remain a feature of conflicts in Central Africa and elsewhere.

Yet civil-rights and anti-racism activists have helped to make racial discrimination and incitement to racial hatred illegal in many parts of the world. Some 155 countries have ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, though countries failed to form a common front to combat racism at the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban.

Racism prevails in most countries and in most sectors – law, education, employment, health, political representation. Institutional racism dogs educational, legal and penal systems on all continents.

In 2002 the UN highlighted US police brutality against, and disproportionately high incarceration rates of, minority groups and foreigners. In Britain institutional racism within the police force has obstructed prosecutions for black or Asian victims of killings. In the Canadian state of Ontario, meanwhile, blacks are 27 times more likely to be jailed before trial than whites.

In the area of health, racial bias begins early: in the US the infant mortality rate among African Americans is 2.5 times greater than among whites. In Australia life expectancy of Aboriginal people remains 20 years lower than for whites.

In the sphere of education, the picture is mixed. In Britain Asian girls have had notable academic success, but many Afro-Caribbean boys continue to leave school without qualifications.

Affirmative action standards have emerged in Canada, the US and India, and in Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa there is also increasing legal recognition of Aboriginal and Maori people’s rights. In US colleges affirmative action and quota systems have produced many more African-American graduates, yet in the workplace many end up earning far less than their white colleagues.

Proportional racial equality is rare in formal politics. In Latin America for instance, a white minority dominates the political scene. But in Brazil, Lula’s 2002 election victory increased the number of non-white parliamentarians.

Racism against asylum-seekers is increasing in many parts of the rich world. During an 18-month period 742 (mainly African) asylum-seekers died trying to cross Europe’s militarized borders. Most racist attacks against immigrants go unreported, but 430 were officially reported in Germany in 1998.

The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were followed by a wave of racist assaults against Muslims, Sikhs and people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent – with almost 1,000 reported in the US by November 2001. New anti-terrorism measures introduced in the US, Britain and elsewhere have reduced safeguards against arbitrary arrest on discriminatory grounds and pose particular challenges to the rights of asylum-seekers and migrants. Meanwhile, Judo-phobia is also on the increase, both in Europe and in Muslim-majority countries.

Sources: UN Development Programme, Human Development Report 2000 and 2003; Human Rights Watch 2002.

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