A prognosis of the coming Durban conference on racism
HUMAN beings, most philosophers would agree, are not a resource.
(Human Resources Department, please note.) But since the rise of
civilisation most human beings have been treated as an economic resource,
and often treated very badly. Indeed, five or ten percent of all the
people who have lived during the past 5,000 years have probably been
This makes it hard for todayâ€™s Africans or African-Americans to
claim compensation for the enslavement of their particular ancestors, just
as the multitude of misdeeds committed in the name of nationalism over the years makes it implausible for Arabs to insist on singling out Zionism as a form of racism. But these conflicting claims threaten to sabotage the global conference on racism that opens in Durban, South Africa on 31 August.
Who cares? Not the conference-going classes, certainly.
Washington has said it will boycott the conference unless the organisers
drop the nonsense about condemning Zionism and demanding reparations for slavery, but around 10,000 of the usual suspects will go to Durban and enjoy a week of
networking by the sea regardless of whether all, or some, or none of the US delegates show up at the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. (I know, they
left out Tooth Decay.)
With or without a stripped-down, low-level US delegation, the
conference will go through the motions (affecting the real world not one whit), and then they will all go home
several good lunches heavier. Yet an opportunity is being lost here. The old â€œZionism is racismâ€ accusation has been allowed to steal centre stage from a much more important debate about slavery. The slavery allegations are important not because 10-15 million
black Africans unwillingly crossed the Atlantic as slaves between the 17th
and 19th centuries, but because todayâ€™s Africa is the worldâ€™s poorest and
most troubled region. Those demanding reparations for slavery are
effectively saying that thatâ€™s the reason for Africaâ€™s present problems, or a big part of it.
Todayâ€™s African-Americans also tend to live near the bottom of the local heap in the US, Brazil and the West Indies: all places where the lighter you are, the higher you are likely to be in income and social
status. A lot of people blame that on the legacy of slavery too.
The debate about all that is not now going to happen in Durban, but
we can have a bit of it here anyway â€” and you have to start by splitting
it in two down the middle of the Atlantic.
There is no evidence that the slave trade did any lasting harm to Africa as a whole between the 17th century and the early 19th century (by which time the British navy had effectively ended it). To remove an average of say, 60,000 people a year from regions of Africa with a total population of over 50 million would have had virtually no long-term
demographic or economic impact, especially since the process did not
involve European invasion and conquest.
By contrast, full-scale colonisation by Europeans after about 1875 had a huge impact on Africa, both negative and positive. Whether the
negative aspects outweighed the positive is still deeply controversial: for example, much of Africa is now worse off economically and socially than it was before decolonisation in the 1960s. But that argument is about colonisation (which also happened to most other places); slavery had nothing to do with it.
The true victims of slavery, unsurprisingly, are not the descendants of the people who sold the slaves but the descendants of those who were sold. Though more than half of African-Americans in the United States and smaller proportions in the West Indies and Brazil have now made it into the middle class, a hugely disproportionate number remain outside it.
If it were simply â€˜racismâ€™, more recent non-white immigrants to these countries would suffer similar disadvantages, which they obviously donâ€™t. Specifically, being the descendant of a slave is a huge social and
economic handicap in the Americas. As to how much of this disadvantage is due to majority prejudice, and how much is the internalised residue of past trauma, consider this.
In Britain, where majority attitudes are less prejudiced because there has never been large-scale slavery at home, they track the performance of various ethnic groups in the schools. African-Americans (almost all from the West Indies, in Britain`s case), come dead bottom in
the rankings. Recent immigrants from black Africa come absolute top, ahead of Chinese, Indians, whites and everybody else. Whatâ€™s the difference? Maybe itâ€™s that these Africans are not descended from slaves.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based
Will the injustice of slavery be righted?