MARVELLING: The Conference On Racism
Posted: Saturday, September 15, 2001
( Orlando Marville ) The Conference on Racism has ended with the usual resolutions, but with a certain taste of defeat. I wonder if I am exaggerating when I suggest that this was a planned ending, with everyone saying that racism is the opposite of motherhood, but everyone somehow escaping any responsibility for what has happened to millions of persons on this globe. I would wish to make some observations on some of the fundamental problems involved in the idea of the conference.
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The idea of a conference on racism was an excellent one. Racism is as rampant, if not more so, as it was in the distant seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Europe began to talk of “progress” and of Indo-Europeans, when they pretended that Greece had created all the wisdom that mankind possessed independently and that Egypt was more of a backward, stagnant society than the marvel of civilisation and social organisation that it had been.
Racism grew up with the slave trade and Europe’s burgeoning cockiness that it was able to go out and conquer the rest of mankind. Surely, brutal conquest indicated a definitive superiority. Additionally, if Africans had been made into permanent slaves, how could one glorify Egypt?
Racism is a problem that we need to deal with. So is the question of what is happening in the Middle East. So is the question of the slave trade having been a crime against humanity. So is the continuing traffic in human beings in Sudan and elsewhere.
So is the horrendous treatment that colonising peoples, whether they were Spanish, white Australian, Euro-Canadian or Portuguese, dealt out to indigenous peoples everywhere. The problem arises when they are all lumped together in a single conference.
This benefits only those who have been the transgressors. They can then walk out of the conference on one pretext or another, but, if truth were to be told, they would never have been present at a conference that dealt either with slavery as a crime against humanity and reparations as the single topic of the conference, or the treatment of indigenous people in the past.
The problem was that we mistook this omnibus affair for a real opportunity to discuss the matters that are outstanding. There were, however, conferences that discussed single issues like reparations to Jewish people for the horrors of the holocaust. Was this proper? My unequivocal answer is in the affirmative.
What was done to the Jews was totally unacceptable by any modern standard that we now use, even if there are still Nazi apologists that pretend that the holocaust was a Hollywood myth. What was done to the Romer, whom we call Gypsies, by the same Nazis was even more horrendous in that it practically decimated the Romer population of Europe. By the same token, I would ask if slavery was a crime against humanity and my answer would be unequivocally yes.
It is therefore only proper that Europe apologise to the millions of descendants of the millions they enslaved and forced to work on their plantations. And, yes, there should be reparations as there were reparations for the Jews. How did the Jews succeed and we fail? There are several possible answers. However, the one that strikes me as the most compelling is that the Jews put forward their argument from a position of strength. They were organised at the level of the Press and at the level of a single state as well as in every public forum. We are not.
Indeed, while it would be extremely difficult to find anyone of the Jewish faith who would speak against reparations for the treatment that their ancestors received in the holocaust, there are some of us who think that slavery was not such a bad thing after all. Such people do not even see why anyone should talk about reparations far less try to understand what reparations involve.
Of course, they would not be averse to a bit of change in their pockets, but God forbid that we talk about reparation in terms of debt forgiveness for Africa or in terms of actually levelling the playing field or correcting the revisionist history that they taught both themselves and us. Frankly, if reparations are to mean anything, they must be focused on a correction of the past.
The simple disbursement of money will not do that. It means an apology from the Christian Church, which at every turn supported slavery. It also means an apology from that other great world religion, Islam. It means an apology to those dragged from Ireland and Scotland on the basis of some semi-slave system of indenture.
It means the recognition of where we have gone wrong as humanity and a commitment to do the right thing now and in the future.
It is simply not acceptable that the North Atlantic continue to preach about human rights as if they have some superior moral standing. We all know pretty well that they do not.
Now that we have had the conference, where do we go from here? Again, the simple answer is that we have had the conference and that is that. No! This is the sort of defeatism, which, had it been practised by the Jews would have left them in a continuing underclass to this day. We have to begin to learn from other people’s successes and not simply accept our defeats with finality.
There is only one way forward: the struggle must go on. We seem as a group of human beings, and here I refer to all of the disenfranchised, to stop whenever we gain a victory, almost as if the war had ended.
• Orlando Marville is a retired diplomat and an expert on African affairs
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