It is truly a shame that the United States of America, the world's lone Superpower, using the excuse that Palestinians intend to accuse Israel of racism and that perhaps other accusations will be leveled against itself, decided to have limited representation at the United Nations' World Conference Against Racism, held through this past week in Durban, South Africa.
By virtue of its proclaimed leadership position on behalf of democracy, a positive example would have been welcome.
The absence is particularly unfortunate because racism is pervasive in North American life and American Indian people are too often a target. Arguably, racism began in earnest in the Western Hemisphere with the denial of humanity to Native peoples. Disenfranchisement from their own self-governance, massacre and dispossession followed. White European immigrants, as their numbers swelled and their firepower gained capability, had little doubts about the right of might. As long as there was land and natural resources to be taken, the pattern continued and, of course, it is not over yet ? not by a long shot.
Justification was required. Very early on, it fell to Spanish scholars, in particular a lawyer named Juan de Sepulveda, who reasoned to the king's court that Indians were not true human beings, but, 'beasts that talk.' The theory was developed that Christian Europeans, 'by right of discovery,' could claim any lands they arrived at before any other European power. Never mind that Native peoples already lived there.
Later, varieties of other theories on the superiority of the European versus the inferiority of 'the colored races' were generated. These have permeated North American society, remaining ingrained through family and national institutions to this day.
It took Martin Luther King and his movement to make the United States face the racism rampant against African-Americans, and by extension, against other peoples of color. Gains were made, civil rights laws passed, and much outright discrimination was put to rest. But such feelings recur in actions even today.
Consider a recent message posted to the Internet by North Carolina State Rep. Don Davis, a white Republican. The e-mail was initially sent to Davis from an Internet site called God's Order Affirmed in Love and the representative, in wholehearted agreement passed it on to all his fellow lawmakers. 'Two things made this country great: White men & Christianity,'' the letter says. 'Every problem that has arrisen (sic) can be directly traced back to our departure from God's Law and the disenfranchisement of White men.''
The Associated Press reported the letter's author 'says the country was founded on the Christian Bible and state laws based on the Ten Commandments, which contributed to the nation's early success. But now the nation is in decline, it says.'
For Native peoples, specific reminders are not hard to find. From Chief Wahoo and the toothy 'Cleveland Indian' to Pocahontas pageants, to the all pervasive denial of humanity in a century of Hollywood movies, to rates of incarceration that greatly defy actual percentages of population, the system remains stacked up against American Indians.
The news from Canada is also depressing. Some 60 provincial police staff in northeastern Ontario are being investigated for e-mailing photographs from the autopsy of an Indian woman along with racist slurs. Government sources said this comment was attached to the photographs of the Native woman, a suicide or murder victim whose body had been cut open: 'Steak knives are good for more than just steaks.'' An Ontario Provincial Police sergeant disseminated the photos to a Ministry of Natural Resources enforcement manager. Neither man has been reprimanded.
Then there was the case of Ontario Provincial Police officers who produced the 'Team Ipperwash '95'' T-shirts and coffee mugs to celebrate their participation in a police action that resulted in the death of unarmed Native protester Dudley George. George was shot by police in 1995 during a protest at Ipperwash Provincial Park. The T-shirts and mugs displayed an arrow through the OPP crest. A different image also printed on mugs and T-shirts showed a horizontal white feather, which Native leaders denounced as symbolic of the activist's death.
While investigations go on for months and often describe these behaviors as 'inappropriate' or 'unprofessional,' the punishment meted out in these cases is not nearly enough to deter the outrageous behavior. Often there is nothing but a warning.
And yet the Canadian government has attended the U.N. conference. It placed an emphasis on working with Aboriginal communities in preparation for its participation in Durban. The Department of Canadian Heritage, through the Canadian Secretariat for the World Conference Against Racism, sought input from its First Nations through a series of consultations reaching as far north as Iqaluit, Nunavut.
In South Africa, thousands of delegates representing every country in the world and hundreds of organizations gathered. They have pledged to combat racism and discrimination in the world. For North America, and for all of humanity, it would have been a source of hope had the United States participated fully.