Despite U.S. Pullout, Debate Over Reparations Continues

Humberto Brown, International Secretary of the U.S.-based Black Radical Congress, is on a mission. He came to the World Conference Against Racism to talk about reparations, and he's going to keep doing it, with or without an official U.S. presence. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the U.S.'s withdrawal from the conference Monday night over what he called "hateful language (that equates) Zionism with racism." Soon after the announcement, Brown joined the hundreds of American nongovernmental organizations protesting outside the UN conference center. Groups from all across the U.S., including the National Indigenous Rights Network, immigrant and migrant associations, and the ACLU, affirmed that even with their government gone, "We, the people, are still here!"

"The U.S. doesn't even want to take the first step and acknowledge slavery as a crime against humanity or acknowledge the continued suffering of Africans and African descendents," says Brown. "Instead, they say they 'regret' that the slave trade happened. Forget regret. We want them to take responsibility." Responsibility, for Brown and others, includes a U.S. commitment to dismantle the dual justice system, which doles out different sentences for white and black defendents, the dual immigration system, which targets immigrants of color, and the inadequate funding for community organizations, health, and education in predominantly black neighborhoods.

Africans and African descendents have worked together in Durban, creating a ten-point declaration of unity that calls for cancellation of third world debt, investing in community-based organizations, and further discussions on compensation. "Look at the economic poverty of Africa. Look at the mortality and incarceration rates for black people in the United States," says Brown. "These are the direct consequences of slavery and colonialism, and they can't continue."

Meanwhile, I wander the "New South Africa," which Kofi Anann says is supposed to be our model for overcoming racism. As I walk the dirt roads of Inanda, Durban's largest black township, I smell burning grass and glimpse children peering out of lopsided tin and cardboard shacks. Although Inanda and the two bordering townships are home to over 3 million people (about twice the population of Manhattan), there is no hospital or sanitation system. The nearest hospital is in Phoenix, the Indian settlement founded by Mahatma Gandhi, more than 30 minutes away. In Durban, blacks rarely eat at the same restaurants as whites, not because they aren't allowed to, but because they can't afford it. Sitting on a bench near City Hall with a South African friend, the stares of passersby remind me that, less than 10 years ago, he could have been arrested for even talking to me.

Ten thousand people from 153 countries (at last official UN count) have met here in Durban and have discussed the issues, from reparations to indigenous autonomy to environmental racism. Groups working on problems of caste in India are meeting with landless South Africans. The acknowledgment of suffering is a crucial beginning to taking action—for the Roma of Europe, for the Dyak of Borneo, whose government denies their very existence, for African descendents who are still affected daily by the legacy of slavery. But talk matters only if people are there to hear it. The withdrawal of the U.S. and Israeli delegations means that some of those most responsible for the suffering won't be around to listen.


Related Stories

"A Summit of Their Own: Youth Demand Action Outside the World Conference Against Racism" by Rachel Neumann

"Toxic Tour: A Visit to Waste-Dumping Sites Shows UN Conference to Be Ignoring Environmental Racism" by Deepa Fernandes

"Compensation Counts: An Activist Speaks on Reparations and the UN Conference Against Racism" by Chisun Lee

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