The United Nations has declared 2015-2024 the International Decade for People of African Descent. It will bring light to crucial issues of racism and reparations but what tangible effect will it have? Alecia D. McKenzie reports.
Last year saw a number of high- profile and tragic killings of African-Americans by police. The globally-publicised shooting of the 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August was followed in September by the killing of 22-year-old John Crawford III, in Beavercreek, Ohio, after he had picked up an unloaded pellet gun in a Walmart Store. Then, in November, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot in a particularly horrific incident captured on video for the world to see. Rice was playing with a toy gun in a park when police pulled up in their vehicle and fired at him within seconds of their arrival. A caller at the park had told a dispatcher that Rice was pointing the gun randomly at others, but that the weapon was probably fake, information that apparently was not transmitted to the responding police officers. Rice died of his injuries the next day.
This death came just a few weeks before the start of the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent. Could similar incidents be avoided by this UN attempt to raise awareness about the issues of racism, xenophobia and the legacy of slavery? Will lives be saved in the future if countries confront and question the reasons that black men and women are disproportionately targeted by security agents in countries such as the United States? This will remain to be seen, but if nothing else, UN experts who have pushed for the Decade hope it will spark self-examination that will eventually lead to change.
Running from 1 January 2015, to 31 December 2024, the Decade’s “sub-title” is “recognition, justice and development”, and it was officially launched at UN headquarters in New York on International Human Rights Day on 10th December.
Starting the decade
“The Decade will allow us to continue the good work started during the 2011 International Year for People of African descent,” says Verene Shepherd, professor of Social History at the University of the West Indies and a member of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.
“The tripartite theme of ‘Recognition, Justice, Development’ will provide an opportunity for all nations to engage in self-reflection on the condition of people of African descent and find strategies to address the issue of racial discrimination and Afrophobia,” she adds. “It is no secret that despite advances, racism and racial discrimination, both direct and indirect, de facto and de jure, continue to manifest themselves in inequality and disadvantage. People of African descent throughout the world, whether as descendants of the victims of the transatlantic trafficking of Africans or as more recent migrants, constitute some of the poorest and most marginalised groups. Studies and findings by international and national bodies demonstrate that people of African descent still have limited access to quality education, health services, housing and social security.”
Will former slave-trading states go as far as offering reparation? This controversial issue is expected to gather force during the Decade as countries push for overdue justice, but the reparation movement itself is not new, especially in the Caribbean and the United States.
“It has been a project since the time of African enslavement when those enslaved took measures to bring attention to their condition and seek redress,” explains Shepherd. “In the post-1930s, the Rastafarian community in the Caribbean took up the struggle and continued it. What is new and recent is the interest shown in the struggle by heads of Caribbean states and the global media attention on the issue.”
Shepherd, who is also chair of the National Reparation Committee in Jamaica and vice-chair of the CARICOM Reparation Commission (CRC), says that she is working with other colleagues to “bring visibility to the crime of African enslavement and the transatlantic trade in captured Africans and the role of Europeans and their collaborators in these acts of barbarity with a view to calling on those who engaged in and profited from these acts to take part in a reparatory justice conversation with Caribbean people”.
The regional group has prepared a Ten Point Action Plan for Reparatory Justice that includes “apology, repatriation for those who desire it, debt cancellation, and African reconnection”. Twelve national reparation committees are working with the CRC and other reparation interest groups outside the region to bring attention to the issue too, and the publication of Sir Hilary Beckles’ Britain’s Black Debt has “re-energised the movement and provided the incontrovertible evidence to support the case”, says Shepherd.
Beckles is pro-vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies and chairman of the reparations task force. He makes a compelling argument for redress. During a meeting in Paris, he stressed that it was essential for Europeans to recognise the consequences of slavery and to engage in dialogue with those who have suffered. He said that his country, Barbados, was the world’s first slave society, “built entirely from the bottom to the top on African slavery”, and was thus a monument to the slave route. Coming from such a place, he said that campaigners would push on with their work, in the face of “denial” but he also praised countries such as Brazil that had taken significant steps in using legislation to mandate that African history be put in textbooks.
In its Programme of Action, the UN says it is reiterating that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and have the potential to contribute constructively to the development and wellbeing of their societies, and that any doctrine of racial superiority is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous and must be rejected, together with theories that attempt to determine the existence of separate human races”.
Most people have heard these sentiments before, yet the consequences of slavery and colonialism continue to undermine such objectives. In the Netherlands, Shepherd and supporters, for example, have been vilified for calling for an end to the Zwarte Piet tradition, in which Saint Nicholas is accompanied by a black servant. This “side-kick” is nearly always personified as stupid and clumsy by white people wearing “black-face”, curly wigs and huge red painted-on lips.
Adherents of the tradition have resisted attempts to change it and are quick to denigrate anyone who points out its inherent racism. “Those who bring attention to the situation of people of African descent around the world understand only too well the consequences of speaking out,” says Shepherd.
Ali Moussa Iye, head of the History and Memory for Dialogue Section of the UN cultural agency UNESCO, believes that the legacy of the 400 years of the transatlantic slave trade is at the root of most cases of racism against individuals of African descent. He and other observers think it will take many more decades for this to be eradicated.
“Thousands suffered from slavery and people of all kinds profited from slavery just like so many people are now profiting from modern-day slavery,” he says. “Racism is a direct result of this monstrous heritage and we need to increase the dialogue about this.”
As head of UNESCO’s Slave Route Project – which marked its 20th anniversary last September and is one of the initiatives formed to achieve such dialogue – Moussa Iye wants slavery to be highlighted in textbooks around the world to give students a greater understanding of the forces at play in racism.
“The least the international community can do is to put this history into the textbooks. You can’t deny this history to those who suffered and continue to experience the consequences of slavery,” he says.
Lucia Nankoe, a Surinamese author and professor who lectures in the Netherlands, says these moves are important in encouraging more open discussion about slavery and systemic racism. She has co-edited a book titled De slaaf vliegt weg (The Slave Flies Away), a thought-provoking look at the portrayal and perception of slavery in the arts. During debates that she has led in the Netherlands, she says the audience has always had many questions, suggesting that it is “evident that the issues about slavery are very much alive.” Nankoe adds that the descendants of both slave-owners and slaves need to examine their attitudes and their mutual history.
“People of African descent were victims of colonialism and slavery, and it’s time for the international community as well as the UN to assume responsibility, whether collectively as states or individually,” Imad Zuhairi, executive director of the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue adds.
His Centre has also stated that “the Decade represents a unique opportunity to underline the important contribution made by People of African Descent to our societies and to take concrete measures to promote” their full inclusion, as well as to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance.
Brazil, home to the largest number of people of African descent outside of Africa, has communicated support for the UN Decade and may build on affirmative action already taken, as the country recognises its own racialised inequalities.
Maria Helena Guimarães de Castro, former secretary of education for the state of São Paulo and a retired professor of political science at the State University of Campinas, has spoken widely about the improvements Brazil has made in education, but acknowledges that the number of black and indigenous students at universities is disproportionately low. These groups are also at a disadvantage when it comes to other sectors such as employment and housing.
The situation is similar in many other countries, not least the US where African-Americans face a daily barrage of indignities. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), for example, 90% of New Yorkers stopped and frisked by police between 2002 and 2010 were from minority groups.
“I doubt if anyone who has never lived in the United States can understand the overwhelming challenge of ‘breathing while black’,” says a Paris-based African-American businesswoman. “It is a horrible, daily fact of life every black
man, woman, child has faced or will face at some point in their lives.”
Leaving a legacy
A diplomat in Paris noted in a recent speech that ironically, “the slave route shows us what nations and communities can accomplish together when they set their sights on something, and then jointly pursue it in unison with other partners with relentless, single-minded determination”.
The official said that bringing about change would now require that same kind of “intensity and determination and international cooperation, galvanised this time for good…We have the opportunity to learn from, and redeem, the past.”
Whether the past is “redeemed” or not, one tangible testament of the Decade will be a “Permanent Memorial in Honour of the Victims of Slavery” that is currently being erected at the UN’s headquarters in New York. It is scheduled to be unveiled at the end of March.
Titled the “Ark of Return”, the memorial is a result of an international design competition launched in 2013 and won by Rodney Leon, an American designer and architect of Haitian heritage. The UN hopes that the monument, which will cost around $2m, will serve as a place of healing and remembrance, a site of meditation, contemplation and restoration.