(The United Nations is now observing the International Decade for People of African Descent, from 2015 through 2024. The Decade is a human rights initiative with three themes: recognition, justice, and development. In May 2005, during a visit to the United States, Mexican president Vicente Fox remarked that Mexican immigrants to the USA were willing to do work that "not even Blacks" would want to do. The following essay appeared fourteen years earlier, on Thursday, 9 May 1991, in the Pioneer Press newspaper, St Paul, Minnesota. The essay, part of the "World of Difference" campaign for tolerance, discusses race and racism, and a particularly 'anti-Black racism' found throughout the Americas and beyond. This article appeared ten years before the 2001 United Nations World Conference against Racism (WCAR), which took place in Durban, South Africa (from which the USA walked out) and eighteen years before Friday, 27 February 2009, when president Barack Obama announced his decision that, yet again, the United States would not participate in the 2009 Durban Plus 8 follow-up to the Durban WCAR.)
Many years ago, the African-American sociologist William Edward Burghardt DuBois wrote that "the problem of the 20th century was the problem of the color line," meaning the issues of race and racism.
Race will remain prominent in the next century also, as we grapple with issues of human relationship. We will become more aware of struggles of race and color in societies other than our own, and we will think about how others’ struggles relate to our own. The international dimensions of race will become more visible and more accessible to us.
“Yo no soy ni tu negro ni tu indio.” I am not your Black or your Indian. I overheard my co-worker Raul say this a few years ago in Texas. When he said it, it struck me. As a Black American, I understood right away how that phrase neatly and dismissively summed up 500 years of what it has meant to be Black or Indian here at home in the Western Hemisphere. “I am not your Black or your Indian, so you cannot treat me that way. I don’t have to do your work for you.” The resolution of the status and hardships of the indigenous people and people of African descent in our hemisphere will be the litmus test for the development of just societies and the honoring of human rights in this part of the world.
For the past half millenium, to be Black or Indian in the Western Hemisphere has meant a hard fate: to be owned and possessed by others; to be completely vulnerable to the malevolent or benevolent whims of others; to be displaced, removed, relocated; to be pressed into doing the labor of others, ensuring life and wealth for others while dying impoverished oneself; and to be completely unable to exercise one’s own human will.
The United States is my home. I was born and raised here, as was my family for many, many generations. My family reflects the racial and cultural hybridization of the hemisphere: African, American Indian and European. In a larger sense, the Western Hemisphere is my home.
Looking at my home and family that way better encompasses the historical processes that have guided me and my communities to the present. The twin issues of land and labor are keys to understanding the concerns of the indigenous people and people of African descent.
How will the United States and every other country of this hemisphere respond to and participate in the resolution of the hardships facing indigenous people and people of African descent? Guatemala, for one, exemplifies the structure of a Caucasian (or neocolonial) national elite that continues to dictate national priorities grounded in white supremacist attitudes and actions. Will indigenous people regain their lands? Will Black people in the United States and the rest of the Americas fight for and win financial reparations for the Atlantic slave trade and centuries of African slavery?
I am optimistic that the “problem of the color line” will be resolved and that here in the Americas and the rest of the world, the next 500 years won’t be the same as the last.
- Marian Douglas. Email: marian.typepad at gmail dot com
Copyright, Marian Douglas. 1991-2015. Originally published in "World of Difference" - Pioneer Press news, Saint Paul, Minnesota, Thursday, May 9, 1991. "World of Difference is a statewide campaign to reduce racial, religious and ethnic prejudice and encourage appreciation of cultural diversity."