The Outcome of the International Decade for People of African Descent in the Americas Depends on All of Us

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On December 8, 2018 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights will hold a consultation on the regional mechanisms to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and other related forms of intolerance. This is a good time to take stock of the situation facing people of African descent in the Americas. In 2018, seventeen years after the World Conference against Racism (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa, where does the region stand in terms of these issues? Given the lack of progress on the Durban agenda, the United Nation General Assembly introduced the International Decade for People of African Descent, 2015-2024. This effort builds on the recommendations adopted at the 2001 World Conference against Racism (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa which convened global actors to discuss preventative measures and implications of racism. During the WCAR, the UN General Assembly acknowledged that the legacy of colonialism, the slave trade, and slavery continues to impede Afro-descendants’ access to societal inclusion. The resulting Durban Declaration and Programme of Action provided a framework for advancing racial rights, with a focus on increasing visibility, accessing justice, and developing measures against poverty.

For the 200 million people of African descent in the Americas, this presents a critical opportunity for targeted change. The culturally-sensitive guidelines and suggestions set forth in the International Decade for People of African Descent offer real mechanisms for positive development, but there is a long way to go before this population feels the positive outcomes of the Programme of Action. Despite the regional trend of economic growth in the Americas, structural racial discrimination still prohibits substantive numbers of people of African descent from profiting from such growth. As the half-way point of the Decade approaches, domestic and international bodies should assess successful implementation strategies and address remaining challenges. The commitment of civil society, national, and international bodies to the Decade could set a positive precedent for targeted socio-economic change in the Americas.

Afro-descendants represent 25 percent of the population in Latin America, but are routinely excluded from the national narrative of their respective countries. During the 1980s and 1990s, black movements in countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Panama demanded their national governments include or restore ethno-racial data to the national census. The data, they argued, would substantiate their claims of the deep-rooted socio-economic disparities between ethnic groups, and hopefully oblige their national government to address the issues. Now, more countries have begun to include ethno-racial data in their census and officially recognize the multiethnic composition of their countries. In Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil, for example, several million Afro-descendants make up ten to 55 percent of the population and countries like Cuba, Mexico, and Ecuador have populations of more than one million Afro-descendants each. 98 percent of people of African descent in Latin America are concentrated in the aforementioned countries.

Interestingly, self-reporting, perceived racial markers, and the structure of questions asked may impact a person’s decision to identify as black or Afro-descendant. This undervalues the number of Afro-descendants in the Americas. Cultural particularities such as a history of race mixture, the tendency to self-identify based on skin color, or regional distinction have, in some cases, obstructed the promotion of collective Afro-descendant identities. Centuries of negation of black identities pushed in large part by the dominant societies, have led to pervasive colorism, which continues today. Lighter hued persons with more European features like a narrow nose and straighter hair are preferred over the darker hued persons with “pelo malo” or “bad hair” referring to traditionally recognized African hair. Notwithstanding, Black social movements are using innovation, folk traditions, and education to foster a sense of cultural pride and positively shape self-perception. As outlined by the recommendations of the UN, nations should actively strive to, “Promote greater knowledge and recognition of and respect for the culture, history and heritage of people of African descent.” The Decade can expand on these movements and disseminate the cultural traditions and rich diversity of Afro-descendants in the Americas. By doing so it can also break down colorism and other perceptions that deeply divide persons.

Three Case Studies: Colombia, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic 

While the Decade’s guidelines apply to all countries, the action-agenda should be done in consultation with African descendent and in some cases territorial authorities of each particular country. The historical and socio-cultural context of the country in question largely determines the specific struggles Afro-descendants confront in their pursuit for equality. In countries like Colombia, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic human rights defenders and Afro-descendant civilians are forced to contend with multinational organizations, large-scale development projects, paramilitary and illegal armed groups, and even the state over equal and complete integration into society.

Colombia’s 54 year-long internal armed conflict, for example, illuminated the realities of Colombia’s racialized geographies. Violence consumed the Pacific and Caribbean coastal regions, which, in areas like the Chocó and Nariño, are home to an overwhelming majority of people of African descent. When President Juan Manuel Santos brokered the historic peace accords in 2016 with the nation’s largest guerilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the world believed in its potential to set a new standard for international negotiation and conflict resolution. Afro-Colombians joined forces with the indigenous to fight their way into peace negotiations and convinced the parties to commit to an Ethnic Chapter, which transversally guarantees their ethnic and collective land rights through the peace agenda. However, the government’s failure to implement key parts of the accord has left many communities vulnerable. Illegal armed groups took advantage of the FARC’s demobilization to establish dominance in ethnic minorities’ territories. This has increased insecurity and displacement in Afro-Colombian areas.

At the same time, illegal armed groups have upped their persecution of social leaders and human rights defenders. More than 330 social leaders have been assassinated since January 2016 and this disproportionately impacts indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), in 2018 34 percent of social leaders killed were ethnic minorities (19 percent Afro descendent and 16 percent indigenous). Out of a total of 38 murdered in 2018 compiled by CODHES, 21 were Afro-Colombian and 17 indigenous. 50 percent of the leaders killed were traditional authorities, territorial representatives and leaders of ethnic organizations, 36 percent were community leaders or trade unionists, 8percent were land rights claimants and the remaining were family members of female leaders. The regions where the majority of the homicides took place from worst to least are: Cauca (26 percent), Valle del Cauca (18 percent), Antioquia (16 percent), Chocó (11 percent), Córdoba (11 percent) and Nariño (8 percent). In addition to the racialization of security concerns that make Afro-Colombians more vulnerable to harm, they continue to face rampant and open racial discrimination. The recent debate in Colombia over a TV character named Soldado Micolta or Private Micolta, whereby a mestizo dressed up in blackface and ridicules people of African descent is indicative of the fact that Colombian society has a long way to go in terms of tolerance, respect and acceptance of Afro-Colombians.

Brazil’s human rights defenders and black communities face a strikingly similar protection crisis, which is further exacerbated by state security forces. In 2017 the Brazilian Forum of Public Security found the homicide rate to be 30.8 per 100,000 individuals. To quell the violence, in 2008 the state of Rio de Janeiro implemented a violence reduction strategy in the favelas or “slums” known as the Police Pacification Units (Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora, UPPs). Military police were trained to enter and occupy a specific favela, taking control from gangs and ensuring peace for the community. Although it was initially acclaimed for its apparent success, the UPP initiative was later found to be another conduit for violence. In what many have called a state-sponsored black genocide, police raids in the favelas led to stop-and-frisk policies and extrajudicial killings that damaged communities’ trust in the police and amplified cycles of violence for citizens and the police force.

According to Human Rights Watch, in 2015 one-fifth of Rio homicides were committed by police, and three-fourths of the victims were black men. The U.S. State Department, Amnesty International and the UN have condemned this “arbitrary deprivation of life” which disproportionately affects Afro-Brazilians under 25. The issue was catapulted to the international stage when Rio de Janeiro Councilwoman Marielle Franco was murdered in early 2018. Marielle, a 38-year-old, black, queer, single mother from the favela of Maré and the only black woman to serve on the 51-member city council used her platform to oppose President Temer’s mandated “federal intervention” against drug cartels in the favelas. The investigation into her assassination remains stalled. Amnesty International Brazil contends that the lack of progress regarding the investigation shows “the Brazilian state’s lack of commitment to human rights defenders.” International groups and black organizations insist that they will continue their fight in spite of the attempt to silence people of African descent.

On the island of Hispaniola, tensions between the Dominican Republic and Haiti gave way to an unprecedented forced migration crisis in 2013. The Dominican Court issued a new ruling called La Sentencia 168-13, which reserved citizenship only for people born in the Dominican Republic to Dominican citizens or legal residents and retroactively applied the law to all persons born on Dominican soil between 1929 and 2010. As such, families who had birthright citizenship and lived in the Dominican Republic for generations were suddenly considered to be effectively “residing illegally in the Dominican territory.” The ruling rendered 200,000 people stateless. The vast majority of those effected were descendants of Haitian migrant workers born in the Dominican Republic. International actors like the Inter-American Commission swiftly denounced the ruling for discriminating based on ethno-racial qualifiers and Haitian President Michel Martelly labeled it a “civil genocide”. The ruling builds on past policies that explicitly targeted Afro-descendants. Under the Trujillo Era (1930 – 1961), official identification documents used the term indio for citizens too dark to be white, whereas negro or black was reserved for Haitians. Anti-black sentiment became public policy in 1937 in the Perejil or Parsley Massacre when Trujillo ordered the army to kill 20,000 Haitians living on the Dominican Republic’s northwestern frontier. The military targeted victims based on identifiers like skin color and the ability to correctly pronounce the Spanish word perejil; still many dark-skinned Dominicans were killed in the massacre. The 2013 ruling highlights the Dominican Republic’s history of furtive narratives and policies that marginalize people of African-descent.

Socioeconomic standards for people of African descent

Studies that analyze the socioeconomic status of Afro-descendants in the Americas have shed light on the extent of their inclusion and exclusion in society. Regionally, 82 percent of Afro-descendants benefit from living in urban settings with relatively high access to services like electricity, running water, and sanitation. However, these persons tend to be found to the poorest sub-sections of cities with deficient infrastructure, increased vulnerability to environmental dangers, and higher exposure to crime and violence. Due to the negative perception of Afro-descendant communities and slums as “disorderly,” Afro-descendants are more susceptible to institutionalized or “state-sponsored” violence. In September 2018, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a press release to express their “deep concern” over this regional trend. Although Afro-descendants are disproportionately represented in cases of homicide victims, they do not have the same access to state security protection as non-Afro-descendants. The state’s failure to provide equal access to such a vital service is not limited to security. Inadequate access to state healthcare institutions contributes to health disparities amongst Afro-descendants. For example, regions in Latin America with a high concentration of Afro-descendants consistently have the lowest level of development and feature the following health disparities in comparison to their respective national averages: higher infant mortality rates amongst Afro-descendants in the Chocó, Colombia, higher suicide and homicide rates amongst Afro-descendants from Esmeraldas in Ecuador, higher rate of HIV/AIDS amongst the Garifuna community in Honduras, and a higher rate of HIV/AIDS prevalence amongst Dominico-Haitians and Haitians working in sugarcane fields. Targeted reforms that increase access to state resources are necessary to alleviate these issues.

Poverty is a pressing issue for people of African descent. In fact, race is one of the most consistent indicators of poverty in Latin America. Holding constant variables such as age, gender, education, type and sector of work, and professional experience, Afro-descendants were found to earn considerably less for the same type of jobs across the region. Additionally, factors like employers’ implicit and explicit racial biases can lead to wage gaps and hiring discrimination practices especially with the common requirement of pictures on resumes. These factors contribute to the increased likelihood that people of African descent will be born poor and remain poor for extended periods. Educational attainment is a proven deterrent to poverty, however ethno-racial inclusion in education is lacking. School settings tend to reproduce negative biases and create hostile environments for students of African descent, which lead to higher dropout rates. On average, 30 percent of Afro-descendants complete secondary education and five percent of Afro-descendants finish tertiary education compared to 46 percent and 14 percent respectively. Although educational attainment is not an indicator of intelligence, its importance cannot be understated. As the Decade progresses, national and international bodies should address obstacles to educational attainment and wealth attainment in order to improve the livelihoods of people of African descent.

Looking backwards to move forward

Racial discrimination in institutional practices is entrenched in the processes of colonialization and independence. Between 10 and 15 million enslaved Africans were forcibly brought to the Americas during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. As Afro-descendants and Indigenous people outnumbered the Europeans, Europeans implemented self-interested policies that enabled them to maintain power in their racially-mixed colonies. In places like Mexico, the resulting Castas system outlined 16 different results of race-mixture that might occur, and demonstrated the apparent superiority of those with visibly European features. Names for people of African descent such as mulato “mule”, lobo “wolf”, or torno atras “turn away” denoted the negative perceptions of those with African features.

After the colonial period, the wars of independence gave way to processes of nation-building that replicated Eurocentric racial hierarchies. Theories of contemporary eugenics supported national calls for Blanqueamiento or “whitening” and mestizaje or “mixing” in order to “advance the race.” Countries with large European-descendant populations like Argentina and Chile embraced blanqueamiento, which purported that a whiter appearance, legal self-identification as white, and lighter-skinned children would facilitate social mobility, while proponents of mestizaje, belonged to countries with significant populations of Afro-descendants and/or Indigenous people like Mexico, Cuba, and Colombia.

Such ideologies justified policies designed to attract European migrants and discourage or ban less-desirable populations. The underlying logic for the social tools alleged that the path to becoming a developed, civilized nation state necessitated the dilution of undesirable ethno-racial physical characteristics. Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos, in support of mestizaje argued that, “the lower types of the species will be absorbed by the superior type…the Black could be redeemed, and step by step, by voluntary extinction the uglier stocks will give way to the more handsome.” The promotion of mestizaje had gendered implications. In Cuba the phrase, “una blanca para casarse, una negra para la cocina y una mulata para la cama” embodies societal perceptions of which identities are entitled to protected designation of femininity and virtue. The encouragement to racially mix through sexual union further justified European men’s sexual assault of women of African and Indigenous descent. With little to no legal protection, there were rarely consequences for the perpetrators or rape and sexual violence. National narratives of racial mixture often obscure these details and favoring an account of history that implies consensual race-mixture led to the morally-superior “racial democracy” visible today.

The pervasive implications of mestizaje and blanqueamiento conceal vibrant Afro-descendant communities and validate discriminatory hiring practices. For example, former Argentinian President Carlos Menem once stated, “In Argentina blacks do not exist, that is a Brazilian problem.” His flawed statement demonstrates the lack of national awareness at the federal level surrounding Afro-descendants and the problems they face. Racism in professional settings is another persistent problem for Afro-descendants that is explained away with mestizaje or the myth of a racial democracy. In Latin America, lucrative sectors like media or tourism often require that job applicants possess a “good appearance.” A Cuban tourist manager explained the phenomenon by saying, “There is no explicit policy stating that one has to be white to work in tourism, but it is regulated that people must have a pleasant aspect, and blacks do not have it.” Unfortunately, this rhetoric invariably harms people of African-descent, and without appropriate race-based initiatives, hiring discrimination will not be addressed.

Positive Developments

In spite of the negatives, the last few decades have seen some developments for people of African descent. While very slow to develop, countries like Colombia and Brazil have begun to accept the plural ethnicities and to attempt to protect them, at least via legal means on paper. A testament to the increased awareness of African-descendants in the Americas, Mexico included a question about Afro-Mexicans on the national survey in 2015 and found that 1.4 million individuals self-identified as Afro-Mexican. In South America, Peru brought awareness to the cultural history of Afro-Peruvians in 2009 when the Peruvian government apologized to Afro-Peruvian people for a history of “abuse, exclusion and discrimination perpetrated against them since the colonial era.” Brazil also aimed to address its history of racial discrimination in education when the federal universities implemented sweeping affirmative-action policies to increase Afro-descendants’ access to higher education. In Colombia, black social groups and international organizations worked together to successfully include of the Ethnic Chapter in the Colombian Peace Accords, which brought an end to the Colombian Civil Conflict. The Ethnic Chapter  provided “principles, safeguards, and guarantees” for the rights of ethnic communities in the aftermath of the Conflict. International bodies have created targeted projects like the Pan American Health Organization’s Health Plan for Afro-descendant youth with concrete recommendations. In Central America, political representation took a positive turn when Costa Rica elected Epsy Campbell Barr as the first Vice President of African Descent in the Costa Rica and the first female Vice President of African Descent in the Americas.

In the United States, Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA-4) introduced bill H. Res. 713 in early 2018 to request Congress’s support of the International Decade for People of African Descent. The bill has five objectives:

  1. Support the goals and ideals of the International Decade for People of African Descent.
  2. Support the establishment of a global affairs strategy and assistance for people of African descent.
  3. Support the expansion of current efforts by the UN, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Organization for American States, and other international organizations to address the human rights situation of people of African Descent
  4. Call upon the United States in cooperation with civil society to develop and implement domestic and global strategies to execute the goals and ideals of the Decade. To combat racism, including by expanding the transformative work of the United States Department of State’s Race, Ethnicity, and Social Inclusion Unit in this regard.
  5. Reaffirm the commitment of Congress to combat racism, discrimination, and intolerance in the United States and around the globe.

In the resolution, Johnson cites former U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power’s statement that “the United States comes to the International Decade for People of African Descent with a full and robust commitment to ensuring the rights of persons of African descent, and to combating racism and discrimination against them.’’ Representative Johnson’s resolution encourages productive dialogue within U.S. Congressional institutions that recognize the socio-cultural and economic contributions of people of African Descent and generates critical dialogue designed to address structural racism. Institutionalizing such a bill would signal exceptional dedication on the part of the U.S. to support people of African Descent and combat racism. The resolution is an effort to expand upon efforts undertaken to combat racial discrimination in the Americas including the U.S. Colombia-Racial Action Plan (CAPREE) and U.S.-Brazil Racial Action Plan that seek to decrease racial discrimination and increase opportunities for ethnic minorities in the U.S., Brazil and Colombia.

Looking ahead

Positive initiatives like Representative Johnson’s resolution are vital to human rights, especially now. Frustration with “broken” political systems triggered the emergence of socially-conservative political regimes in countries like the top four South American economies: Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and Chile. In Colombia, President Iván Duque was sworn into office in August. Duque won popularity among Colombia’s political and economic elites by promising to tear apart the peace accord so vital to protection Afrodescendant and indigenous persons and providing truth and reparations to Colombia’s over 8 million registed victims. In office, his administration is minimally advancing obligations the government agreed to in the accord, and he’s taken a strong line in the nascent ELN peace dialogues which are currently at a standstill. Violence and combat operations involving the ELN guerillas is concentrated in three regions, one of which is majority Afrodescendant and indigenous. Still, Afro-descendant communities are pressing Duque to move forward on the FARC deal, implement the Ethnic Chapter and to agree to a ‘humanitarian accord’ with the ELN.

Like Duque, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera prefers to use “heavy-handed” tactics to address his concerns. When recent waves of Afro-descendant immigrants arrived in the largely mestizo or white country, Piñera suggested lax immigration laws were responsible for “importing problems like delinquency, drug trafficking and organized crime.” Newly-elected Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro represents a more extreme case. Lauded as “Brazil’s Trump” he has openly disparaged Afro-descendant communities, queer groups, and women. In a 2017 trip to a quilombo, an Afro-Brazilian community founded by the descendants of runaway Afro-Brazilians during the age of slavery, Bolsonaro ridiculed their weight using terminology for weighing cattle and said, “They do nothing. They are not even good for procreation!” The public officials’ incendiary rhetoric and hardline approaches could lead to dangerous public policies as people become increasingly comfortable seeing the “out-group” as other. These statements prompted five members of the U.S. Congress to write to National Security Advisor John Bolton on November 28, urging that governments in the Americas and U.S. and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights “closely monitor the human rights climate in Brazil in the coming years to ensure that the President-elect’s rhetoric does not lead to further abuses of marginalized communities.”

When citizens who seek a sense of lawfulness and order associate other human beings with disorder, it is easier to create policies that seclude and dehumanize them. The Decade seeks to address this issue by creating a comprehensive understanding of Afro-descendants that maintains human dignity. The contemporary experience for people of African Descent in the Americas is rooted in complex histories of contention and resistance that will take more than a decade to address.

The International Decade for People of African Descent presents a viable opportunity to reflect on the past, address transgressions, and implement key policies for a positive future. The multifaceted set of issues Afro-descendants face range from social and economic exclusion to systemic assassinations and still, Afro-descendants in the Americas are considered to be the ethno-racial group with the most positive outlook. With the proper support, the strength and expertise of Afro-descendant communities paired with national bodies and international organizations could set new precedents for targeted reforms. Everyone deserves the right to full, equal societal inclusion, and when marginalized groups benefit so does everyone else. An Inter-American Development report found that integration of marginalized groups into the job market could expand the productivity of many Latin American governments by one-third. Societies should invest in the full integration of their citizens, and especially their most marginalized, in order to improve their productivity, improve their institutions, and improve the lives of all of their citizens. In 2024, the International Decade for People of African Descent will come to an end. When the Decade ends, what positive changes will remain? The answer to this question depends on all of us and the actions we will take to defend Afrodescendant rights in this region.

About The Author

Gimena Sánchez – Garzoli – Director for the Andes, and Crystal Yuille, Executive Assistant and Internship Coordinator, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).[/vc_column_text]

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