The UN World Conference Against Racism was a very American event. About 40% of the delegates accredited to the NGO forum were North American; at Durban, one had the constant experience of running into old movement comrades and friends, as well as seeing a new and younger generation of US activists coming together.
The WCAR was American in another way, too: It was anti-American. Just as the first two WCARs (1978 and 1983) were focused on anathematizing and ending the South African apartheid regime, the 2001 Durban conference sought to challenge the US empire, the hegemonic position the US occupies in a post-colonial, post-Cold War, post-apartheid, and post-civil rights world.
Of course, the US government was well aware of this situation. The ostensibly pro civil rights Clinton administration coquetted with the conference throughout its planning stages, worrying about the oppositional and activist orientation being developed in its various "PrepComs" and NGO statements, but at the same time hoping to moderate and coopt the conference, to secure a role for the US as a reform oriented official participant. Aware of the malign implications of turning their back on the conference, especially among their already estranged domestic constituents on the Democratic Party's left, the Clintonites were unwilling entirely to repudiate the conference. That task was left to the Bush administration, whose domestic political priorities were the converse of Clinton's. Bush was a creature of the Republican right, a Southern president (in the US sense of the word), a usurper who owed his office in large part to anti-black voting rights fraud. He sought by attacking the conference to shore up his key lower-strata "socially conservative" constituencies; he had already assured the loyalty of the corporate fat cats by enacting massive regressive income and wealth redistribution. Disowning the conference had an extra benefit for the Bushies, too: it provided a "wedge issue" to divide two key Democratic Party constituencies, blacks and Jews.
Then came September 11, and Durban was swept into the dustbin of history. What had seemed to us -- the NGO delegates -- such a crucial event was now yesterday's news, if people could remember it at all. A massive world crisis will do that to you.
And indeed, the 9/11 event was a rupture in US politics
and world politics. The actual assaults -- horrifying and tragic as they
were -- were certainly the flashpoint of these dramatic political shifts.
But it was the US government's response to the attacks, the reactionary
counteroffensive that Bush and his minions have undertaken against civil
society both within the US and against a range of perceived and real enemies
around the world, that was decisive in launching the political crisis that
democratic and egalitarian social movements now face. The emergency conditions
confronting our movements derive from several sources:
As a result of these developments, we confront a very disturbing political situation: the near-paralysis of opposition politics. The movements that seemed renascent before 9/11 -- notably the anti-globalization, anti-WTO movement and the resurgent anti-racist movement represented by Durban, by reparations initiatives, by resistance to racial profiling, and by critiques of the prison-industrial complex -- have now been put on hold. Though not completely stymied, they have been set back considerably. Denying this is whistling in the dark.
Current support for the Bush regime is driven by two factors: the sense of crisis and the failure of any credible political alternative. Rather than sinking into the slough of despond, we should be working on developing a movement-oriented explanation of the present situation. In the absence of mass opposition, ideas really count. In fact, if there were available to us a radical democratic, anti-racist, anti-apocalyptic alternative account -- alternative to the standard rhetoric of the "A Nation Challenged" sort, I mean -- the apparent "common-sense" of much of the Bushies' rhetoric would be much easier to challenge.
So here are some contributions toward that alternative political stance. I hope that these ideas, in concert with those of many other radical activists and intellectuals, will help reinvigorate the movement we so desperately need.
Radical Globalism: In the era of the internet, of AIDS, of diaspora, of postcoloniality, and of tidal waves of migration, globalization is not only the domain of corporations and capital; it is also a popular domain. Exclusivist concepts of citizenship are over. "Fortress" America (or Fortress Europe, or Fortress anywhere else) is an unworkable and repressive political construct. Interdependence should be recognized as a potential source of strength, not weakness. Ethnoglobality has replaced ethnonationality. Huge expatriate and post-colonial populations in the world's North represent a tremendous resource for development and democratization, if they can be afforded full citizenship rights, not demonized and super-exploited. Already private remittances from "developed" countries to poor ones constitute a major source of "foreign aid," totalling about $75 billion/year.
Greed Kills: One message of both Durban and 9/11 is that the world's North, for its own security, needs to terminate its ceaseless exploitation of the global South. The consumerism of "McWorld" is built on a planetary sweatshop. The global "debt trap" now engulfs not only impoverished nations, but fairly developed ones like Argentina, Mexico and South Korea. African debt/GNP ratios have reached the obscene level of 125%, and debt service in many Southern countries amounts to more than 50% of state revenue per year. Assaults on the world's poor via the global financial system -- notably the debt and its policing by the IMF through "structural adjustment policies" -- result in the deaths of tens of millions every year. This can readily be understood in terms of racism and terrorism: the world's poor are largely peasants and super exploited workers, dark-skinned sharecroppers and peons of a global corporate plantation. Transnational Simon Legrees now seek to sell their Southern darkies the water they drink, the crops they have traditionally planted and harvested, and the weapons their corrupt governments will use to kill the peons of bordering countries. Health care or AIDS medicines for these subhumans? Not unless they can pay our fees at the country club!
Colonialism is Not Over: The European colonial powers could not sustain their empires after WWII, a fact they sometimes had to be taught the hard way, through armed revolutions. But they had learned by the 1960s that indirect rule works better than explicit empire anyway. Setting up spheres of influence throughout the now "independent" global South allowed for a level of pillage and depredation unimaginable during the bad old days of overt colonialism. After WWII, the US became the chief neocolonialist power. But it still carried on its decades-long schizophrenia about whether it was more properly the "big stick" imperialist or the isolationist avoider of "foreign entanglements." Defeat in Vietnam and the regime's subsequent difficulty in mounting interventions (the so-called "Vietnam syndrome") show that this conflict continues in our own day, although after 9/11 and the Afghanistan triumphs, the "Vietnam syndrome" may well be dead: further cause for worry.
Proxy colonialism also should be mentioned, notably in the Middle East, where Israel operates as the favorite US gendarme. Israel seems to have decided that this is the proper moment for an all-out war on the Palestinians, and Bush seems to have signed on. At Durban, I thought, laudable condemnation of Israeli colonialism was vitiated by real anti-semitism. That the Bushies used this as a poor excuse for leaving the conference doesn't mean that it wasn't a real problem.
Racism and Anti-Racism as Practice: In a recent book (The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II), I have argued that racism must be understood in terms of its consequences, not as a matter of intentions or beliefs. Today, racism has been largely -- though not entirely, to be sure -- detached from its perpetrators. In its most advanced forms, indeed, it has no perpetrators; it is a nearly invisible, taken-for granted, "common-sense" feature of everyday life and global social structure. This is the situation that allows US courts and mainstream political discourse to overturn affirmative action, to proclaim the US a "color-blind" society, etc. But if we define racism as the routinized outcome of practices that create or reproduce hierarchical social structures based on essentialized racial categories, then we can see better how it extends from the transnational to the national to the experiential and personal, from the global debt burden to racial profiling, from Negrophobia to Islamophobia. Racism is a deeply entrenched social structure, largely congruent with the rise of capitalism, the rise of democracy (for some), and the triumph of Enlightenment concepts of identity and culture.
Since racism is so large, combating it must also be a large-scale practice. The reparations idea provides a valuable guidepost here. Reparation means repair, making whole, making good what was evil. As a sociopolitical project, reparations can be seen to extend from the large to the small, from the institutional to the personal. Clearly, abolishing the debt (not "forgiving," for who is to forgive and who is to be forgiven?) fits within the reparations logic, as does affirmative action.
Redistribution fits as well, but here we must be careful: The politics of income and wealth distribution are "double-entry" bookkeeping items. Not only the allocation of resources is involved, but also the derivation of revenues. Thinking about the problem on the US (national) level, for example: If reparations were to be paid for the crime against humanity that was African slavery (an important point from Durban), it would be important to look at both the inflow and the outflow side of the process. On the outflow side, reparations should take the form of social investment (for example, a "Marshall Plan for the Cities" or something similar). Payments to individuals or families would be problematic: Slavery was far more centrally a collective wrong than an individual depredation. Its historical outcome in structural racism is the main evil we want to annul, and the negative effects of past slavery for present-day individuals are hard to assess. On the inflow side, there is a danger that reparations would be paid out of general revenues, unduly assessing present-day working people for the crimes of past colonialists and elites, perpetuating rather than attenuating racial conflicts, and allowing new variants of the "color-blind" argument to loom up in the future. An alternative revenue-oriented strategy would raise the money by means of a wealth tax, thus recognizing how many present-day capital hoards had their origins in slavery. Insurance companies indemnified slaveowners if their slaves escaped or shipbound Africans revolted, for example. British slaveowners were compensated for their "losses" in 1833 when Parliament abolished slavery, and North American slavocrats regained their autarchic local autonomy in the "Compromise" (which Du Bois called a counterrevolution) of 1877.
Beyond reparations, anti-racist practice can be understood macro-politically in terms of social citizenship and micro-politically in terms of acculturation and socialization. Very briefly, the concept of social citizenship was proposed by T.H. Marshall as the obligation of the post-WWII welfare state, the proximate stage in the achievement of popular sovereignty. Rights, Marshall argued, had been acquired by the populace in stages: first economic, then political. The time had now come for the achievement of social rights. Of course, this formulation was offered when the British flag still flew over Lagos and Singapore and Jim Crow still flourished in the US; it was proposed when postmodern criticism of the limits of "rights talk" (in critical race theory, for example) had not yet been made; and it certainly did not encompass the diasporic and globalized issues anti-racists face today. Yet we can make use of it to think of political inclusion, social provision, even world citizenship.
By acculturation and socialization I mean the reawakening of the 1960s concept that "the personal is political" as a key principle of anti-racist personal practice. No one -- no matter what their racial identity is -- can be free of racism in their heads or hearts; as I have said, it is too deeply ingrained a social structure. Yet a great deal of thought and action has been devoted to the problem of fostering anti-racist practice at the individual and experiential level. Developing these skills, fostering the interruption and interrogation of racism, and extending the reach of anti-racism in family, school and cultural work, is an important dimension of the practice we want to support.
Democracy is Inseparable from Pluralism: Both Durban and the current world crisis (of 9/11, globalization, and the Afghan war) teach us once again that hegemony is inherently unstable and conflictual. But they also demonstrate that embattled hegemonies demonize their oppositions. The standard practice here is to rely upon racial and religious differences to unify supporters and stigmatize critics: you're either with us or against us, a loyal subject or a "terrorist." These tactics remain effective, especially during "wartime," but they are also newly vulnerable to internal divisions. The diasporic world, the many millions of post-colonial immigrants now in the Northern countries, and the legacy of anti-racist and civil rights movements, all potentially undermine such authoritarian appeals. The dimension of religious pluralism is especially important now. Why? Because racial and religious profiling are converging. Because Islamophobia is threatening to polarize the globe once again, this time in a nuclear age. And because religious fundamentalism -- North and South, East and West -- is itself a direct threat to democracy.
The Body is the Person: The body was a key topic at Durban, because racial identity is always about the body. At Durban, there was discussion about enslavement (ownership of one's body by another) past and present, about trafficking in women's and children's (particularly girls') bodies, AIDS and other diseases as racial phenomena, and about the multiform linkages between sex/gender and race. It is not news that racism derives much of its energy from sexism, from the efforts of men to possess and control women's bodies. Nor is it surprising that authoritarian and anti democratic rule takes women as its first hostages. Whether traditional or modern, whether religious or corporate, whether opposing the burqua, demanding the right to abortion, or resisting the maquilas and sweatshops that dot the globe, a central thread of democratic movements -- anti-racist, anti-globalization and anti-authoritarian -- is the liberation of women. The right of all human beings to control their own bodies is a fundamental democratic demand.
In Lieu of a Conclusion: These are only tentative thoughts on the enormous challenge we -- our movement, our radical democratic commitments -- face in the post-Durban, and especially post-9/11, era. But this work will continue; it is part of a larger project. Numerous activists and writers are struggling with these issues. Not through any one set of ideas, but through the aggregation and synthesis of many efforts to make sense of the current crisis, will we advance toward a new politics. Ultimately, while ideas may be important, what we all rely upon most is the great unfulfilled desire for freedom that exists in human beings. Our task as a movement is to interpret and help organize that desire.
Howard Winant (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Professor of Sociology at Temple University. His most recent book is The World is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II (Basic Books). This essay appears in the "After Durban" Symposium in Poverty & Race (Jan./Feb. 2002), published by the Poverty & Race Research Action Council (email@example.com).