Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It is an odd day indeed. Do we wish each other “happy racism elimination day” or do we express “condolences”?
In 1966 the United Nations designated March 21 to commemorate the policing killing of 69 people (mostly unarmed students) at a peaceful demonstration against the apartheid “pass laws” in Sharpeville, South Africa. The General Assembly called on the international community to redouble its efforts to end all forms of racial discrimination
This year’s commemoration is made more poignant because of the recent death of Nelson Mandela, who was at the epicentre of the anti-apartheid movement. Mandela died knowing that apartheid has ended, but the reality of racism and discrimination remains not only in South Africa but around the world.
The theme for this year is the role of leaders in combating racism and racial discrimination.
It must be remembered, however, that many leaders in the West did not support the anti-apartheid movement. The British government, for example, opposed economic sanctions “because we do not accept that this situation in South Africa constitutes a threat to international peace and security and we do not in any case believe that sanctions would have the effect of persuading the South African Government to change its policies.”
The United States supported the South African government. In 1981 President Ronald Reagan publicly announced his support for a Cold War ally. The fear of “communism” trumped “racial discrimination”.
Canada’s Prime Minister Brian Mulroney ended up on the right side of history with his “defiance” of those in his caucus, cabinet and government bureaucracy by challenging the South African regime. “I viewed apartheid with the same degree of disgust that I attached to the Nazis,” he wrote in his autobiography.
But what can “leaders” do to eliminate racism?
Today leaders should speak out against injustices, but so few do. And when they do speak out, their words are carefully crafted in the nuanced language of diplomacy rather than the harsh words of condemnation.
Racism and discrimination persist because too many leaders remain silent for the sake of expediency.
Combating racism and all forms of discrimination requires courage; moral courage. It requires leaders who will not only do the “right thing” but the necessary things too.
Being a “leader” in the fight against racism, bigotry and discrimination should not only be a function of those in authority. It should be an expectation of all people who are part of the larger human family.
So on this day for the elimination of racial discrimination, my sincere condolences to the victims of racism — past and present — and a salute to those who fight against it.