Why nations fear racism meeting

Jerry Large / Times staff columnist

The face you see when you look in the mirror is not the face other people see when they look at you. It is reversed. When someone else takes a photograph and shows it to you, you see what can only be seen from outside your own head.

Something like that slight change of perspective is one of the most valuable offerings of the United Nations conference against racism that begins tomorrow in Durban, South Africa.

But some countries may not benefit from that, because they don't want to talk about things that make them uncomfortable, or to confront pictures of themselves that are not compatible with their own self-image.

India, the world's most populous democracy, a country known for its challenge to oppressive racism under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, is wary of participating.

On the way to work the other day, I listened to a discussion on the radio of India's reasons for objecting to the agenda. India has a problem with its caste system. Despite having been outlawed 50 years ago, discrimination against Dalits, the people at the bottom of Indian society once known as "untouchables," continues.

The conference listed the caste system as one of the ills it hopes to address, so India decided not to put itself in an embarrassing position. Caste is an internal affair, it argued, and caste discrimination is not racism.

India is one of those countries that would be there, in the front row, hurling quotations from Gandhi if its own house were not a topic of discussion. India was a champion of the civil-rights movement in the United States and a stalwart in the battle against apartheid in South Africa. It is not an evil place.

There are laws upon laws to protect the rights of Dalits and even multiple programs to give them opportunities to enter the mainstream. A Dalit became India's president in 1997, an amazing accomplishment. But the great majority of Dalits remain impoverished and shut out.

Poorly enforced The laws on the books are not well enforced and do not change people's hearts, but they do allow a few Dalits to thrive, and that, in turn, diffuses calls for more intense efforts on their behalf. I have heard a story like this somewhere before. It is so hard to look inward and see those places where we do not live up to our own ideals. No one wants to be the bad guy. We go to extraordinary lengths to persuade ourselves and others that we are not, and cannot, be on the side that does wrong.

Tomorrow's conference is the third U.N. conference against racism, xenophobia and intolerance. The first was held in 1978 and the second in 1983. My own country, the United States, skipped the first two, and is sending a token delegation to this one.

It's already been decided that Secretary of State Colin Powell won't go because of Arab-instigated barbs flung at Israel over its treatment of Palestinians, the same reason that kept the United States out of the past two conferences. Israel does not like language in drafts of some conference documents that equates Zionism with racism.

The United States and several European countries are also worried that discussions of reparations for the harm caused by discrimination might put them in an awkward position.

What's the answer?

How is it that democracies, accustomed to messy internal politics that go along with letting everyone have their say, balk at discussing their positions? After all, the United Nations can't make anyone do anything. I think they are afraid to talk about these issues openly because they know where their hearts lie, and that is not always the same place where their laws would lead.

We all know that our friends support our positions and our adversaries oppose them, but at an international conference there is the opportunity to see our positions reflected back at us by people who don't have a direct stake in our conflicts.

Sometimes children only want to play a game if they know they'll get their way. There is too much at stake for nations to behave that way.

Jerry Large can be reached at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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Referred by: Benjamin P Kaila
Published on:4 Sep, 2001
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