Racism in International Perspective

I’ve written here before about racism, and responses to it, outside the U.S. One of the similarities is that overt, extreme racists such as white supremacists can be found outside the U.S.; and, there are other responses to racism besides the knee-jerk, absolutist interpretation of ‘free speech’ popular in the U.S.

There are a couple of recent news items that set in rather stark contrast to the “whitewash” response of the U.S. government to racism. In Canada, the Ontario Human Rights Commission says racism was a clear motive behind a number of attacks on Asian fisherman. According to the Canadian Press, a the Commission is preparing a report, investigated in part by Barbara Hall, the chief commissioner who says:

“… interviews reveal experiences of racial harassment, ranging from verbal and physical assaults, to destruction of fishing equipment, to stone-throwing.

The report says the incidents have had “profound impacts” on the people involved, their friends and families, and the Asian Canadian community as a whole.

‘In a society as diverse as ours, we need to learn about each other, from each other and how we can work together to fight racism, discrimination and harassment whenever and wherever it occurs,’ says Ms. Hall.”

The Canadians, once again, get it right. First of all, that there is a commission that is interviewing people about their experiences of racism is a step in the right direction; and, that the people on that commission are taking those testimonies seriously, rather than minimizing them, is another point in their favor. The Canadians also have a much better sense of what it means to have a national approach to racial justice,  and seeing that within the context of an international community, than do Americans.

The second news item is from Athens, Greece.  The Greek English-language news source Kathimerini is reporting on the case of “inciting racial hatred”:

Lawyer Costas Plevris was handed a 14-month suspended sentence yesterday for inciting racial hatred through his book “Jews: The Whole Truth,” which denies the Holocaust took place.

The court in Athens cleared the publisher, editor and a journalist at the small right-wing newspaper Eleftheros Kosmos that published extracts of the book, which was released in 2006.

Plevris decried the verdict, saying, “Jews are trying to fight me with this trial so they can shut my mouth.” He also accused the Jews of “making a business out of the Holocaust so they can claim compensation from the German state.”

Jewish community leaders applauded the court’s decision. “We thank the Greek justice system for its dignity and for demonstrating that we truly live in a democratic society,” said Moisis Constantinis, the president of the Central Jewish Council of Greece.

The main prosecutor in the case had recommended that Plevris be cleared, arguing that he had “simply written a book,” not committed a criminal act.

This is one of those cases that makes people in the U.S. go nuts because of the prevailing content-free based approach to speech.   I raise this example here, along with the Canadian example, to point out how different these approaches are from that in the U.S., and to suggest that there might be something valuable that we in the U.S. could learn from these approaches.   In contrast to the excessive focus on individualism in the U.S.,  the Canadian and Greek examples illustrate an approach to law that beings with an assumption that democracy in a multicultural, pluralist society is only possible within a context in which the human rights of all citizens are protected from racially, ethnically motivated violence and assaultive speech.