You are here: Editorial: the colour line

This issue of UNA-UK’s magazine considers race in international affairs.

Ten years ago, the content might have focused more narrowly on racism, seeking to shine a spotlight on longstanding ills, such as the systematic oppression of Kurds, Palestinians and Sri Lankan Tamils, or the global rise in intolerance fuelled in part by the financial crisis. And we would have been right to do so.

The past decade has seen a worrying resurgence of racist ideologies. Earlier this year, the UN Special Rapporteur on racism, E. Tendayi Achiume (interviewed on pages 20–21), warned that “globally, racial equality is under attack”. Secretary-General António Guterres has urged member states to protect human rights, saying: “We are increasingly seeing the perverse phenomenon of populism and extremism feeding off each other in a frenzy of growing racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred and other forms of intolerance.”

Fear of the other increasingly dominates the political discourse in countries from Austria to Australia, India to Israel, South Africa to Sweden, as ultra-nationalist parties have encouraged leaders from across the political spectrum to adopt insular and exclusionary policies. In Brazil, Italy and the Philippines  leaders have openly praised fascism. Some of the biggest refugee hosts – such as Tanzania and Turkey – have conducted expulsions and are planning more. Neo-Nazi groups have perpetrated violence in countries including Argentina, Estonia, Greece and Russia. In the US, they accounted for more than half of all extremist killings in 2017. The World Jewish Congress estimates that over 100 social media posts per day deny the Holocaust.

At the extreme end of the scale, we have seen atrocities – against Muslims in Myanmar, Christians in Iraq and Anglophones in Cameroon, among others – and slave auctions for black migrants seeking refuge in Libya.

Clearly, we need to focus on fighting racism. But doing so requires an approach that goes deeper than the policies of yesteryear, which too often pitted notions of equality against diversity and multiculturalism against integration. It means addressing the wider structural and historical causes, as well as the impacts, of racism.

Few have captured the essence of this challenge better than Ambalavaner Sivanandan, who fled the 1958 anti-Tamil pogroms of Sri Lanka and became editor of the London-based journal Race & Class:

“The colour line is the power line is the poverty line.”

While political movements have long grappled with these dynamics, modern communications mean they are no longer confined to activist circles in the West, or elites in the global South. Popular culture has become woke.

For the most part, this is a good thing, with movements such as Black Lives Matter and #RhodesMustFall provoking much-needed debate and action. But it has prompted a backlash which racists have been quick to exploit. They brand those speaking out against discrimination as snowflakes who are too easily offended, even though there is much that should offend. At the same time, they rail against injustices committed against white people – particularly white men – by the powers that be, despite the fact that the powerful are still, so often, white and male.

So how should we respond? First, we must call out these narratives, and those who peddle them, for what they are. Racism has always adapted to the discourse of the day, from the pseudo-religious justification of colonial crimes against humanity, to the pseudo-scientific Nazi doctrines of racial superiority. Today, it is the language of privilege and marginalisation that is being co-opted.

Second, we must challenge the lies that seek to bolster division, from hugely inflated refugee numbers (0.24% of the UK population) to myths about overzealous multiculturalists recasting Christmas as “Winterval” to politicians branding entire populations as “criminal” or countries as “shitholes”.

Third, we must reclaim the political space. Even when racists remain on the fringes of power they have been able to shape the debate. Along with sections of the press, they have pushed political parties to sacrifice principles for the lure of support, with many now seeking to occupy populist ground rather than challenge it.

Fourth, we must expose simplistic “keep ’em out” solutions, which lay the blame for social and economic ills at the door of foreigners and give a free pass to the political elites to which so many of these self-appointed representatives of the people belong. As Rita Izsák-Ndiaye of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination writes on pages 12–13, when “people are busy analyzing their differences … they will not be able to unite to demand civil, public, political or socio-economic rights and changes, such as equal access to quality education, proper health care or ending corruption, to mention just a few”.

Fifth, we must ensure that racist rhetoric does not derail much-needed global co-operation. At a time when parallels are being drawn between now and the leadup to the First and Second World Wars, we must learn from the past to avoid a third. This means countering increased attacks against the international community of states – whether they come from those espousing the (oxy)moronic vision of a transnational alliance of nationalists, or those seeking to defend liberal values by appealing to like-minded nations to band together.

Finally, we must seek to understand how race colours our approach to challenges ranging from climate change to disarmament to sustainable development.

We cannot hope to unpack these issues in 24 pages, but we offer some perspectives from scholars and activists on pages 8–11.

We also need to take a hard look at the UN as an institution. On pages 14–17, Tom Weiss and I highlight the role of “the global South” in shaping its work – a story told through quotes in this issue’s Ten (pages 18–19).

It is a complicated story. On the one hand, the UN has helped to maintain the “power line”: the structures that underpin racism and other forms of marginalisation. While the organisation has delivered much for the poor, Western states have arguably gained more from the post-1945 system, which favours them in structure and approach.

Appointments, elections and numbers of seats, most notably in the Security Council, still favour the pale. There remains a solidarity deficit. The West has an outsize influence on UN programming and provides a large, albeit modest, amount of funding (collectively, the EU contributes around 30% of the UN’s
regular budget – an annual contribution roughly equal to 1.4% of GDP of its poorest member state, Bulgaria). Developing states, meanwhile, shoulder the bulk of the burden when it comes to sheltering refugees or sending peacekeepers into harm’s way.

But the UN has also been subversive. Its crucial role in the struggle against colonial oppression and apartheid dramatically changed the make-up and focus of the international community. Once radical ideas, from people-centred development to self-determination, are now mainstream. The values we sometimes call Western were shaped by Asians, Africans, Arabs and South Americans, and across the world the marginalised use international human rights laws to advance their cause.

At its best, the UN can level the playing field between the powerful and the oppressed, both between and within states. It has shown time and again that it can transgress and wear down the colour line. Amid all the pressing challenges we face, we must not lose sight of the need to strengthen and transform the UN, so that this line can eventually be erased.

None of this is easy, but those writing in, and featured on, these pages offer hope and ideas on taking forward this agenda. This editorial is dedicated to them, and to one of my internet trolls, who felt the need to tell me: “Brown women never built anything. And they come to our civilization to lecture us. Sad.”

Whatever the level – local, national and international – we must recognise and address the complex interplay of factors that affect how we see and are seen, what we can and cannot do. We must accept that our experiences are different and that equality does not, and should not, mean “the same”. But although we are different, our common humanity in this ever smaller world means that divided we fall, together we rise. As the late Kofi Annan invites us to on page 22: let us rise.

Photo: Beach near Cape Town, 1982. This literal “colour line” marked the boundary between the white and non-white areas of the beach © UN Photo