Southerners in South Africa: The World Conference Against Racism

By Gwen Robinson

Vol. 23, No. 3-4, 2001 pp. 14-15

On August 29th Rev. C.T. Vivian, the celebrated Atlanta civil rights activist, walked into the Non-Governmental Organization Forum (NGO) of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Racial Intolerance in Durban, South Africa. Within minutes Rev. Vivian was surrounded by fellow activists, grassroots leaders and friends from around the South. As he made his way to do an interview with South African Broadcasting, Rev. Vivian became the center of a group of friends from his generation of civil rights leaders in the U.S. South, admirers from younger generations in the U.S. and other countries, and reporters eager to hear his take on the U.N. Conference. While the United States government did not have a large, high-level (or, some would argue, positive) presence at the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR), Rev. Vivian and more than three hundred others from the U.S. South were there to make their voices heard.

Southerners' experiences at the WCAR seem to fall into two categories: insiders and outsiders. For those people who were involved in the preparatory meetings that happened in the year before the conference, the World Conference was the culminating event in an ongoing process. There were major "prepcoms" (meetings to prepare the U.N. document on racism for the conference) in every region of the world. Southerners were represented at the meetings in Geneva, Switzerland; Santiago, Chile; and Quito, Ecuador among others. At the preparatory meetings the language for many issues was discussed, including whether the trans-Atlantic slave trade should be declared a crime, whether the treatment of dalits (the untouchables) in India should be included as racism, and whether Israel's actions towards the Palestinians should be included as the only nation specifically condemned for its actions.

"When we went to the prepcoms we spent most of our time lobbying for the language we wanted in the document and listening to the official governmental discussions. Some of the work continued after the two or three-day meetings ended, so it was hard to keep up with all the decisions. You really had to pay attention," said Beni Ivey of the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta, who is also on the U.S. NGO Steering Committee for the WCAR. Ray Winbush of the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University also participated in the prepcoms. "We hit the ground running in Durban because we knew who we had to influence from the prepcoms. We met with the President of Senegal in Durban because he is the biggest opponent of declaring slavery a crime. I would say that 80 percent of what we did was behind the scenes." While the debates over language may seem esoteric to most people, people involved with the process argue for its importance. "Our struggles need to be enshrined in the document so that we can use it later in law," explained Elaine R. Jones of the NAACP Legal Fund. "You can't change anything without the force of law."

The behind-the-scenes nature of much of the negotiations left many people who were not familiar with the process feeling lost. For many grassroots delegates at the Durban Conference, the large sessions and official negotiations over language were too obscure to be meaningful. But grassroots delegations had other reasons for attending. "We went to tell the story of the South and the history of oppression here" said Leah Wise of the Southeast Regional Economic Justice Network in Durham, North Carolina. "When you say you're from the U.S. here most people think that you are either privileged or that everything was fixed with Dr. King. When our folks tell their stories about what it's like to work in a processing plant or to work as a migrant farm worker, the people here are amazed." Wise's group included thirty grassroots workers from Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. This group went to Durban a week early to meet with South African organizations working on economic justice. Environmental justice groups also went to Durban early to do a toxic tour of the city and to meet with organizations fighting toxic pollution and racism. International Possibilities Unlimited, IPU, sponsored forty


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grassroots environmental justice activists to attend the WCAR including representatives from Citizens for Environmental Justice in Savannah, Georgia. The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond conducted two training sessions in South Africa before the conference opened. The Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation sponsored a group of Brazilians to attend the conference and distributed their comparative study, Beyond Racism. (See end of article for more information on the report.)

Despite the differences in experiences, almost everyone agreed that the conference was as much an experience of racism and intolerance as an event to dismantle racism. One of the major drawbacks to the conference was the disorganization, due in large part to the role of the United States. The U.S. committed $600,000 to the World Conference early on, but by June the U.S. was reported to have only paid $250,000. By comparison the U.N. Conference on Women received more than $6 million from the U.S. government for organization and implementation. Beyond a lack of commitment, however, the Bush administration was actively engaged in blocking issues it did not want addressed. "It's not as if our government just said 'I'm taking my marbles and going home.' It's as if they took their marbles and then kicked everyone else's around the playground. They have been attending every international meeting after the Durban conference trying to derail the process" said Ray Winbush. The major points the U.S. objects to are specifically naming Israel as a racist state, and declaring the slave trade a crime. The government also continues to block any mention of reparations in the U.N. document. Since much of the final negotiations will happen at small, international meetings, the vigilance of U.S. non-profits that continue to follow what's happening is key.

Beyond the financial and political concerns, however, the conference illuminated, once again, what is needed to fight racism: shared power. The U.N. process is not structured to be participatory and that culture was very clear to the participants. The agenda of the NGO Forum was changed at the last minute. Hotel reservations and translation arrangements were continually bungled and overall, the conference felt confused. The large sessions had anywhere from two to five hundred participants and were set up as panel presentations with limited time for audience participation. Smaller workshops were scattered around the city, leaving many delegates exhausted trying to figure out where to go.

"We come back recognizing the significance of what we've done in the South," explains Leah Wise "We have developed some strategies that other people haven't; the intensive relationship building and linking economic and racial oppression. Grassroots people in the South can use their experiences to help people around the world better understand how to fight oppression." Without changing the power dynamics that say only the experts, only the people with access to money and privilege should have any say, racism in all its forms cannot be dismantled.

The ongoing relationships that have the possibility to undermine current power dynamics is the most hopeful outcome from the World Conference Against Racism. The conference allowed civil rights, economic justice, environmental justice, and women's groups from the South and around the U.S. to meet groups from Mauritania who had experienced modern day slavery, indigenous activists from Guatemala, and human rights activists from China, among many, many others. Some of these connections have turned into ongoing relationships. "I would say that we forged relationships of steel" said Beni Ivey. "There are African-American, Latino, Asian, and White leaders from across the South who have participated in a major international event and who have come back with a renewed commitment to forging a multi-racial coalition in the South." Ben Okri, the Nigerian novelist, wrote that dreams are most insurgent when they are suppressed. The dream of what the U.N. Conference Against Racism could have been was lost. But the idea of a world where racism is cracked or eroded just a little bit is surely rebellious and alive.

Gwen Robinson is a community organizer and writer living in Atlanta.

The Southern Education Foundation recently released a report on the relations between persons of European and African descent in Brazil, South Africa, and the United States, all of which have larger populations of poor, uneducated black people. The report documents the costs and consequences of racism. It can be downloaded free of charge at www.beyondracism.org.