Racism in International Context: Challenging Racial Profiling in Europe

This is a remarkable story about racism, and steps to fight it, in an international context from the Open Society Institute (OSI). Rachel Aicher of OSI interviews Rosalind Williams in this short (about 1 minute) video clip:

The story she tells is one of a brisk winter day in 1992, when she, Rosalind Williams—an African-American woman and naturalized Spanish citizen—stepped off the train at a railway station in Spain and was immediately asked to produce her ID. When asked why she was the only person being stopped, the police officer explained that he was following orders: it was because of the color of her skin.

Williams brought her case of ethnic profiling to court, culminating in a landmark decision by the UN Human Rights Committee after 15 years of litigation. Despite this victory, it seems that racial profiling is still going strong in Spain.

Racism in International Context: International Coalition of Cities against Racism

One of the things I intend to do with this international series is focus on possible solutions, or at least attempts, at combating racism around the globe.   More and more, I think that municipal policies are one part of the answer for addressing racism and intolerance.    An interesting example of using municipal policies to combat racism and intolerance comes from UNESCO, the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization within the UN (founded in 1945).

The International Coalition of Cities Against Racism is an UNESCO initiative launched in March 2004 to establish a network of cities interested in sharing experiences in order to improve their policies to fight racism, discrimination, xenophobia and exclusion.  The goal of the initiative is to involve interested cities in a common struggle against racism  through an international coalition. One of the things I like about this approach is that it recognizes a global struggle while it simultaneously acknowledges the priorities of each region of the world by establishing regional coalitions.  These regional coalitions are being established in Africa, Arab Region, Asia and the Pacific, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and North America, with their respective program of action.

Within each region, the people involved will identify a “Lead City” which will develop a “ten point plan” of action.  The ten point plan includes ten commitments to racial justice in areas that city authorities typically control such as education, housing, employment and cultural activities.  There’s a list of participating cities and regions here.

While there are no cities from the U.S. officially participating in the UNESCO initiative (not surprising given the reluctance of the U.S. to participate in global efforts to curb intolerance), there is one U.S. city named in a discussion paper series (No.3), available here [pdf].   On pages 36-40, the report details the efforts in the city of Boston to combat racism.   Although Boston has “a reputation in the United States for being rather unwelcoming to persons of colour, and the metropolitan region of Boston comes in third among the most “white” metropolitan regions in the United States,” (p.37), it is taking action through the Office of Civil Rights to change this reputation and the reality behind it.  Perhaps Boston could be the “Lead City” as the U.S. joins the UNESCO initiative to fight racism, discrimination, xenophobia and exclusion.

Of course, this approach has some problems – most notably the fact that, at best, it will be a patchwork solution that only addresses problems in some cities.  Other municipalities may not follow the “lead” of neighboring cities.  Rural and suburban areas are left out.   Still, I’m somewhat encouraged by such an approach. In part, I’m encouraged by drawin on the lessons of the LGBT movement which has effectively used activism at the municipal level to win protection from discrimination and some civil rights.  Then, the movement has used those victories as leverage to fight for extensions of those same rights at the state and federal levels.     The other advantage of starting at the city level in developing policies to combat racism and discrimination is that there is an affinity between urban areas and tolerance, people often mention “greater acceptance of diversity” as one of the main reasons for moving to large urban areas.   Perhaps it’s time for cities in the U.S. to join the international community in combating racism.