Racism Persists and Revives Around the World

August 29, 2017 2:48 pm Last Updated: August 29, 2017 2:48 pm

In recent decades, racism was considered by many to be in sharp decline across the world, partly because expanding knowledge of the human genome demonstrated that all of us share almost exactly the same set of genes.

A broad international consensus emerged during the 20th century that discrimination based on race, open or concealed, was odious and should be banned. After World War II, it was declared taboo in most democratic nations, and pushed to the margins of most societies, as a characteristic of mentally-unbalanced persons.

In modern Canada, for example, it is a criminal offense to incite hatred against any identifiable  cultural community, and in sentencing judges must now consider whether the impugned act was motivated by hate based on “race (or) national or ethnic origin.”

Historically, racism often led as well to the domination of other nations based on the belief that one’s own governance model and race were superior.  It was no doubt a major factor in the creation of numerous empires worldwide.

Despite this legacy, racism still persists in many countries, exhibiting dismaying power and violence for hundreds of millions of innocent families. The new U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently warned that racism, along with xenophobia, anti-semitism, and Islamophobia, are poisoning societies everywhere.

One of the vehicles through which racism is produced are xenophobic political parties emerging since the early 1980s. Populist and authoritarian, they reject established ethno-cultural and political norms.  They oppose the integration of immigrant communities by mobilizing xenophobic and racist sentiments in communities.

In the United States, the latest episode occurred two weeks ago when an estimated 500 white supremacists—reportedly the largest such gathering in 40 years—carrying Confederate and Nazi flags clashed with opponents in the former Confederate stronghold of Charlottesville, Virginia. At issue was the announced removal of statues celebrating leaders of the defeated Confederate states.

A counterprotester, Heather Heyer, 32, was killed by a car allegedly driven into a crowd by James Fields, now charged with murder in the second degree. The Economist quotes a former teacher of Fields, saying that he had “sympathy toward Nazism…idolization of Hitler (and a) belief in white supremacy.”

Flowers, candles, and chalk-written messages surround a photograph of Heather Heyer on the spot where she was killed and 19 others injured when a car slammed into a crowd of people protesting against a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 16, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Flowers, candles, and chalk-written messages surround a photograph of Heather Heyer on the spot where she was killed and 19 others injured when a car slammed into a crowd of people protesting against a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 16, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Right-wing extremism in the United States has accelerated in recent years. The Southern Poverty Law Center claims there are approximately 900 hate groups. The movement flourishes online through forums and hate-fueled social media groups. They incite calls for violence and evade internet suspensions and bans by altering their language to avoid violating the rules and regulations of services.  Their coded messages of hate spread by terms such as “14 words,” “1488,” “88,” and “Hail victory brother.” The American Nazi Party alone has more than 13,000 followers on Twitter. 

The presence of extremism also raises questions about the state of American democracy a century and a half after a civil war fought over the “rights” of the white ethnic majority to enslave members of the black ethnic minority. After Charlottesville, more protests are threatened by those opposing the removal of Confederate monuments.

A “just world” has eluded the United States partly because its history has been unjust. From almost exterminating the indigenous population to enslaving another to colonization and neo-colonialism, Americans have reached the point where they must now examine their past and how it shapes their present and future. 

Fifty-four years ago, Martin Luther King proclaimed, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy… to rise from the …valley of segregation to the… path of racial justice….to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood…to make justice a reality…I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘… all men (and women) are created equal.'”

We cannot go back.  We must respond to the racist violence in Charlottesville and elsewhere in any country by automatically and unequivocally condemning it. Americans must not ignore the level of bigotry and hatred that has caused a national crisis.