Fighting Racism and Racial Discrimination

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This blog post was written by Amanda Oliveira, Intern at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute’s HQ.

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is celebrated every March 21 as a call to the international community to strengthen efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination and racism. UN General Assembly carefully selected this day to honor the Johannesburg massacre victims.[1] On March 21, 1960, the so-called ‘Sharpeville Massacre’ took place in Johannesburg city, South Africa. Twenty thousand people gathered to oppose the Apartheid pass laws that day. The pass laws, also known as the natives’ laws, severely confined blacks in South Africa to designated areas, obliging them to carry a sort of passport on which it was written where they could go. Despite the nonviolent nature of the protest, the police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people and wounding 189 more. Since then, several countries abolished racist laws, and a worldwide framework to combat racism has been established under the guidance of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination adopted in 1965[2].

            Every year, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has a specific theme. In 2023, the focus is on the urgency of fighting racism and racial discrimination considering the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although the Declaration enshrines a sense of equal humanity beyond individual differences, the truth is that people of a particular racial group remain historically deprived of enjoying the rights inherent to them as human beings. This deprivation is the legacy of a past of colonization, slavery, and the slave trade, whose marks are still deeply rooted today and affect individuals for reasons of race, color, national or ethnic origin. Therefore, on this day, to promote equality and combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, States are invited to take specific and robust actions, in law and practice, as one of the 75 initiatives conveyed by the High United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights.[3]

 What is racism and racial discrimination?

             Professor and current Minister of Human Rights in Brazil, Dr. Silvio Almeida, describes in his book that racism is a systematic form of discrimination that is based on race and manifests itself through conscious or unconscious practices that culminate in disadvantages or privileges for individuals, depending on the racial group to which they belong. [4] He goes on to define racial discrimination as the practice of giving members of racially recognized groups differential treatment. Hence, racial discrimination and power are closely linked since it is through laws, public policies, and leadership positions that a group attributes advantages and disadvantages to another group based on the race to which they belong.

In this sense, racial discrimination can be direct or indirect. In direct discrimination, there is an ostensive repudiation of a group of individuals, such as the express prohibition of black people from going to public swimming pools, as happened in the United States during segregation times. [5] Indirect discrimination occurs when apparent neutral rule or action puts people of a particular racial and ethnic background at a disadvantage. In other words, indirect discrimination does not have an explicit intention but a veiled one. For instance, we can cite the case of Griggs v. Duke Power, judged by the United States Supreme Court, which gave rise to the indirect discrimination concept. In this case, a factory required a high school diploma and minimum aptitude test score for all applicants wanting a job or transfer within the company. On the surface, these requirements seemed neutral when applied to all applicants. However, this norm produced segregation in practice: only white people met both requirements, while black people were excluded from any opportunity. [6]

Professor Dr. Silvio Almeida concludes that racial discrimination produces social stratification: an intergenerational phenomenon that affects the life course of all members of a social group, which includes their chances of social ascension, recognition, and material subsistence.[7] For this reason, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, Mutuma Ruteere, has stated that poverty is inextricably linked to discrimination and racism. He also emphasized that the socio-economic vulnerability of victims of racism is a result of slavery, the slave trade, colonization, and state-sponsored intolerance. These historical imbalances keep racially discriminated people in conditions of disadvantage and poverty, inherited from generation to generation.[8]

In short, racism materializes with practices of racial discrimination and, therefore, has a systemic character. It is crucial to recognize racism as a historical process that seeks to subjugate and consider one racial group inferior to another rather than limiting racism to isolated behaviors.

Milestones in the fight against racism

In 2001, the World Conference against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, produced the Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA). The DDPA constitutes the most authoritative and comprehensive document to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance. According to the Declaration: no country can claim to be free of racism, and tackling it requires a universal effort.[9] The DDPA is a political commitment that, while not legally enforceable, serves as a roadmap for steps that States, the UN, other international organizations, and civil society can take to abolish racial discrimination in institutions, laws, and public policies. It also emphasizes the approach to racism from a gender point of view due to the intersectionality between the oppressions suffered by black women.

In 2013, the General Assembly declared the International Decade for People of African Descent, starting in January 2015 and ending in December 2024. [10] The theme for the Decade is: “People of African descent: recognition, justice, and development.” One of the UN’s priorities has been advancing and protecting the human rights of people of African descent. Thus, the goals established for the Decade are i. promote respect, protection, and fulfillment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by people of African Descent; ii. promote a greater knowledge of and respect for the diverse heritage, culture, and contribution of people of African descent to the development of societies; iii. adopt and strengthen national, regional, and international legal frameworks according to the DDPA and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination to ensure their full and effective implementation.[11]

On August 2, 2021, the Permanent Forum for People of African Descent was established as a programmatic activity for the implementation of the International Decade for People of African Descent. [12] The newly established Permanent Forum aims, among other things, to serve as a consultative mechanism for people of African descent; offer recommendations to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly; coordinate and advise UN bodies, programs, and funds on issues related to the rights of Afro-descendant populations; examine the urgent global need to establish adequate channels to obtain disaggregated data; contribute to the elaboration of a United Nations Declaration on the human rights of people of African descent.[13] RWI visiting researcher Dr. Michael McEachrane is a member and Special Rapporteur of the Permanent Forum. [14] The first session of the Permanent Forum took place in December 2022, and had among its central themes the need for reparation for the Afro-descendant population.[15]Soon the second session will take place from 30 May to 2 June 2023 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.[16]

             Finally, in 2022, the UN Human Rights Office launched a two-year campaign to combat racism called: “Learn, Speak, Act!“. The campaign attempts to increase racial equality awareness and support on a global scale. Education is a powerful tool to combat racism. Hence, all people have the right to be educated regarding human rights issues and racism history in order to fight against all forms of prejudice. In addition to education, as change agents, we are all responsible for advancing the anti-racism agenda, which entails speaking out against intolerance and taking concrete actions to address racial discrimination.[17]

Final remarks

The observance of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recalls the categorical rejection of any theory or notion of racial supremacy. Also, it acknowledges how the world has failed to combat and expose racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and extreme intolerance, particularly by public authorities and politicians at all levels. [18] As seen above, the fight against racism has had many tangible achievements. Yet we do not have full equality for all individuals in practice. Therefore, today we must reinforce everyone’s role in the fight against racism and demand urgent measures from the authorities to eliminate racism from social structures.

[1] <>

[2] UN General Assembly, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 21 December 1965, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 660, p. 195.

[3] <>

[4] ALMEIDA, Silvio Luiz de. Racismo Estrutural. São Paulo: Ed. Jandaíra – Coleção Feminismo Plurais (Selo Sueli Carneiro), 2020. P. 22.

[5] <>

[6] UNITED STATES. Supreme Court of United States. Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 US 404 (1971).

[7] ALMEIDA, Silvio Luiz de. (n. 1) P. 23.

[8] UN General Assembly, Elimination of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance: report of the 3rd Committee: General Assembly, 68th session, 16 August 2013, A/68/329. Available at: <>.

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[10] UN General Assembly, Proclamation of the International Decade for People of African Descent: General Assembly, 68th session, 23 December 2013, A/RES/68/237. Available at: <>.

[11] <>

[12] <>

[13] UN General Assembly, Establishment of the Permanent Forum of People of African Descent: General Assembly, 75th session, 6 August 2021, A/RES/75/314. Available at: <>

[14] <>

[15] <>

[16] <>

[17] UN Human Rights Council, From rhetoric to reality: a global call for concrete action against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, 48th session, 14 October 2021, A/HRC/RES/48/18. Available at: <>.

[18] <>

Featured image: Clay Banks on Unsplash

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