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Essential Matter: Racism, Citizenship and Social Justice

17 Mar 2003

Two important public policy issues have influenced debates on racism and xenophobia. The first is the complex way racial cleavages have shaped the evolution of citizenship, especially in countries with deep ethnoracial divisions. Much of the history of efforts to construct a responsive and accountable public sphere can be considered as struggles to demolish racial barriers and incorporate previously excluded groups into the system of rights and obligations that define citizenship. Struggles for universal citizenship have underscored the need to respect cultural diversity and its underlying values of tolerance, accommodation and solidarity. The second issue is the promotion of social justice and equitable systems of governance, which are seen as a fundamental requirement for achieving stability and consolidating the values of citizenship. Yet reforms based on social justice are often fraught with difficulties because they deal with redistributive issues. They may be seen in zero-sum terms by some citizens. Losers associated with the status quo may resist or undermine the reforms, while those who stand to gain may not be strong enough to defend them. Concerns for fiscal prudence under conditions of liberal competitive markets may also act as a constraint to the bridging of inequalities.

The UNRISD conference on Racism and Public Policy (3–5 September 2001, Durban)—held to coincide with the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance—addressed four broad issues relating to those above: the social construction of race and citizenship; the social dynamics of racism and inequality; organized responses to cultural diversity; and the impact of public policies on race relations.

More than 40 prominent scholars from various regions of the world responded to UNRISD’s invitation to write papers and lead discussions at the meeting. Issue No 25 of UNRISD News brings together excerpts from the papers of eight of these scholars: George M. Fredrickson, Tracey McIntosh, Ray Jureidini and Hans-Georg Betz, who consider issues related to citizenship; Glenn C. Loury, Khoo Boo Teik and Robert D. Bullard, who address governance and social justice issues; and Rudolfo Stavenhagen, who traces changes in ideas about race, citizenship and justice since the establishment of the United Nations.

Citizenship issues
Genetic research has discredited the practice of classifying humans according to distinct races. However, a gulf still exists between scientific knowledge and popular beliefs about race. Physical differences may appear trivial, but they structure perceptions and constitute a significant source of prejudice in social relations. George M. Fredrickson discusses the competing traditions of thought in the evolution of citizenship in the United States. There, commitment to universal human rights co-existed with a strong historical tendency to exclude non-white groups from citizenship. The Civil War and use of black troops to defend the Union represented the first major effort to extend citizenship to African-Americans. However, this gain was undermined in the South during the almost century-long Jim Crow era, when blacks suffered discrimination, disfranchisement and violence. Struggles for racial equality intensified between the 1930s and 1960s, culminating in the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, which made citizenship rights more enforceable. However, as Fredrickson notes, formal equality in the United States has not led to social citizenship: a substantially higher proportion of blacks than whites are likely to be imprisoned, unemployed, socially isolated or destitute.

Racial discrimination impacts men and women differently, underscoring the need for a gendered understanding of citizenship in racially segmented societies. Tracey McIntosh develops this theme in light of Maori women’s experiences in New Zealand. Race, gender and class interlock—and there are dangers in imagining a universal “female”, or homogenous ethnoracial groups. Maori women, for example, share with Maori men the scars and disadvantages associated with colonization: poor education and health status, low income and employment, inadequate housing, and overrepresentation in crime. However, Maori women are disadvantaged vis-à-vis both Maori men and white New Zealanders. McIntosh argues that policies must focus on improving the participation of Maori women in male-dominated Maori institutions, as well as in national institutions that regulate the lives of all New Zealanders.

Gender discrimination is an issue also addressed by Ray Jureidini in his discussion of labour migration and xenophobia in the Middle East, an area that has experienced massive waves of immigrants engaged in short-term work. The migration of cheap Asian and African workers has produced a racialized secondary labour market in that region. These workers are associated with the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs, which nationals refuse to do despite widespread poverty and unemployment. A central feature of the contract that underpins labour recruitment for these jobs is its bondage character: workers are not free to access local labour markets without state approval, and are attached to a sponsor for the duration of the contract. Jureidini reports that conditions of slavery pertain to many female live-in domestic workers: threats of violence, restriction of movement, exploitative working conditions and widespread abuse. He calls for the introduction and enforcement of local labour laws and international conventions that will protect such workers.

Racism often needs mobilizers, organizations and a discourse to activate or sustain it. According to Hans-Georg Betz, a new form of exclusionary populism, exemplified by right-wing political parties, poses a threat to Europe’s liberal order. These parties advocate a restrictive notion of citizenship: only co-ethnics or long-standing citizens should enjoy full citizenship rights. The transformation of left-wing parties into centrist organizations, in which the average worker feels abandoned, has allowed the populist right to fill the vacuum. Betz is confident, however, that the institutions of Western democracy will be strong enough to meet the challenge.

Governance and social justice
In his contribution, Glenn C. Loury challenges the dominant ideology—liberal individualism—that drives opposition to affirmative action in the United States. This ideology espouses a policy of colour-blindness: the practice of not using race when carrying out a policy. He distinguishes colour-blindness from race-indifference: the practice of not considering how a chosen rule might impact various racial groups. Both can ameliorate or exacerbate the social disadvantage of minorities. However, Loury contends that given the history of racism in the United States, the effects of race-blind or race-indifferent policies should be evaluated asymmetrically by reordering moral concerns. This would involve placing racial justice before race-blindness or race-indifference. He concludes that when top universities use affirmative action to ration admissions, they reinforce in powerful ways this reordering of moral priorities—the need to build an American leadership cadre that includes African-Americans and other minorities.

Khoo Boo Teik discusses the effects of affirmative action policies in Malaysia and their implications for Indonesia. Economic instability since the 1997 financial crisis has provoked racial and ethnic riots in Indonesia whereas Malaysia, which has a history of racial violence, seems to have avoided ethnoracial implosion. Instead, the pressure for change in Malaysia has attracted a coalition of organizations drawn from diverse groups, religious affiliations and ideologies. Analysts attribute Malaysia’s relative success in managing ethnoracial relations to its pre-crisis affirmative action programme—the New Economic Policy (NEP). This redistributive programme has favoured the Malays vis-à-vis the Chinese. Khoo argues that NEP incorporated other objectives related to high capacities for policy making, state intervention in the economy and other modes of governance associated with East Asia’s developmental state. It seems the strategy has had the overall effect of radically recomposing Malaysia’s class structure, altering the balance of power between different groups and empowering the state to deliver economic and political outcomes. Khoo contends, however, that wholesale application of Malaysia-type affirmative action policies in Indonesia may be difficult in a global environment that discourages economic nationalism.

Robert D. Bullard’s article is on environmental racism, which is defined as a practice that provides benefits to corporations that pollute the environment and shifts liabilities to people of colour. Bullard reports that environmental racism influences local land use, encourages lax enforcement of environmental regulations, and legitimizes human exposure to harmful chemicals and risky technologies. Combating environmental racism would require the acceptance of environmental protection as a basic human right; the non-discriminatory enforcement of existing environmental, health, housing and civil rights laws; the closing of corporate tax loopholes that encourage corporations to pollute the environments of poor and disadvantaged people; and the development of effective international regulations and agreements.

Changes since 1948
In The Last Word, Rodolfo Stavenhagen traces changes in ideas about race, citizenship and justice since the establishment of the United Nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 upheld the principle of universal rights and freedoms, and barred discrimination on the basis of race and other human cleavages. The anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s and 1960s led to the incorporation of the right to self-determination in the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. This represented a distinct shift from racist attitudes and ideologies to people’s rights and the construction of an equitable world order. Southern migration to the industrial societies of the North produced new forms of racism in the 1970s and 1980s, affecting the fortunes of racial minorities, migrant labourers and refugees. However, migration also gave rise to the concept of multiculturalism, or the right to be different, and more recently to the notion of interculturality. The latter seeks to strengthen diversity through flexible modes of governance that are not restricted to any one model of the “nation state”.

The eight papers excerpted in this issue are available at www.unrisd.org.

Yusuf Bangura is a Research Co-ordinator at UNRISD.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.