The Durban Conference: Will America be Missing in Action?

As the World Conference against racism, xenophobia, and related intolerance, scheduled to convene August 31 to September 7 in Durban, South Africa, nears, the criticism of it in some quarters grows more and more intense.

Put broadly, the purpose of the conference, approved by a United Nations resolution in 1997, is to examine the causes and contemporary manifestations of racism and intolerance, search out remedies for the wrongs, and develop strategies "to achieve full and effective equality" by eliminating racism around the globe.

Yes, that's a utopian notion—as was the expressed ideals for the founding of the United Nations itself a half-century ago.

But what has brought the criticism has been the item on the conference agenda that allows for discussion of reparations for past racial wrongdoing in the United States and other countries.

Worried that America's hand will be forced by the court of international opinion and possibly even by international courts, some have urged the Bush Administration to boycott the conference altogether, or send a low-level delegation in order to indicate it doesn't consider the conference significant.

But the Administration should not make such a serious mistake.

It, and the critics of the Durban Conference, need to pay attention to the winds of history. These are issues that must be faced. The time for that reckoning has come, and the United States must be involved in helping insure that those questions are framed and discussed in the right way.

Given the two most dramatic examples of racial liberation in our lifetime—in South Africa, and here in the United States—how can anyone think taking the "ostrich position" toward the Durban Conference is going to do any good?

At America's birth, its white majority declared that America could exist "half-slave and half-free." That perverse contradiction led to the Civil War. Later, via the Supreme Court's infamous Plessy decision of 1896, the white majority stripped black Americans of their "inalienable" rights in order to reserve all the opportunity of America for themselves.

That diabolical regime lasted for seventy years—the formative years of modern America—until, after great struggle, African Americans forced their claim to citizenship back on the national agenda. But even as late as the spring of 1963 some white politicians and commentators were braying that legal segregation would last "forever."

Such hubris was even more evident for a longer time in South Africa, where as late as 1976—when Nelson Mandela was 15 years into a life sentence on Robyn Island—the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa seemed completely defeated and sage commentators the world over were declaring that apartheid there would last until 2050.

But, have we forgotten that even in those moments the winds of change were already swirling over those places?

In Birmingham in May of 1963, when city officials unleashed the police dogs and fire hoses on the nonviolent marchers, the world soon realized that show of brutal force was actually one of the Civil Rights Era's most dramatic signs that legal segregation was crumbling.

In South Africa in 1976, when the authorities brutally suppressed the first Soweto uprising, which had come seemingly out of nowhere, many thought that had finished the liberation movement. Later, the world would realize that it had finished apartheid itself.

One point of considering this recent history is recognizing that just because some declare business can continue as usual does not mean it will. In the United States of the 1960s and the South Africa of the 1970s forces beyond human control had brought the issues to the point of reckoning.

So it is with the issues of the Durban Conference.

Consider reparations: Up to even three years ago, it was dismissed out-of-hand by mainstream media commentators. Now it is not. Now those opposed to reparations have to devote more and more "ink" to it.

My point isn't to debate the issue here, although I believe the argument for reparations is morally and legally compelling.

My point is that it's undeniable the issue has been "put" on the national and international agenda. We have to begin to discuss it and other issues of racism and intolerance around the globe, be it in Rwanda or the Balkans.

America's sticking its head in the sand isn't going to make the issues disappear. Nor will a petulant show of contempt. Ask the old-time segregationists of the American South and South Africa.

The wisest course is for the United States to be present and accounted for in Durban—with a delegation led by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Then, they could forthrightly challenge the proponents of views that are wrong—such as the one equating Zionism with racism. Surely, the U.S. is self-confident enough and wily enough from its years of negotiating tense international conflicts to navigate the ideological debates in Durban.

More positively, though still a work in progress on race relations, America has much to teach other nations—and much to learn from them. America must stand and be counted with the world leaders around the globe who declare by their presence that racism and xenophobia are wrong.

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