The International Day for
the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

by | Mar 21, 2024

This blog post was written with the aim of using The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination as a chance to talk about racial discrimination, which is far from being eliminated. Historical and contemporary examples of segregation are introduced, followed by a brief discussion on environmental racism and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Remembering the legacy of the day

On the 21st of March, The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed since 1966. The day is chosen as a reminder of South African demonstrations against the pass laws, which acted as a mechanism of racially segregating the population. Sixty-nine people were killed, and many were injured by the police during the Sharpeville Massacre. Today, it is not only a public holiday called Human Rights Day in South Africa but also a day to remember racial discrimination and its results worldwide.

This year, the theme of The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is A Decade of Recognition, Justice, and Development: Implementation of the International Decade for People of African Descent. United Nations states that this theme was chosen as a symbol of the continuing suffering and discrimination people of African descent must live under due to the structural and social problems in the aftermath of slavery and colonialism. This draws parallels to the decade (2015-2024) named International Decade for People of African Descent. Following the UN’s effort to emphasize today’s political atmosphere of rising xenophobia and racism, it is essential to note that although structural and legal changes may occur, it takes a long time to fix the social and economic impacts of this legacy.

Persistence of racial segregation: a global phenomenon

Racial segregation, although eliminated in South Africa, is still a part of many people’s lives. Due to the elevated perspective towards the issue of discrimination, today, one might think the states are forced to avoid or cover up the structural segregation. However, it is still a case in many countries to have a spectrum of racial segregation cases covering constitutional as well as practical occurrences.

Racial Discrimination in Malaysia, Israel and the U.S.A.

For instance, in the Malaysian constitution, a special set of rights is provided to ethnic Malaysians but not citizens of different ethnic descent. In the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s report on Israel, racially discriminatory practices towards the Arab population are identified. The committee points out instances where separate sectors are maintained for Jewish and Arab persons, particularly in housing and education, potentially resulting in unequal treatment and funding, as well as disparities in access to resources such as water and the disproportionate targeting of Palestinians in house demolitions; the report states that these practices are Article 3 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which is prohibiting any form of racial segregation in any state. Another example is from Detroit, where residential segregation is detected as the highest in the U.S.A. Black and white people are clustered in different neighborhoods, to the degree that the residents of Detroit city are 80% Black and Grosse Pointe, a suburb sharing border, is 90% White (Time).

Clustering within a community cannot be summarized easily; however, it can be argued that a significant contributor is a prejudice towards something unfamiliar to them. This social psychology fact historically led people to suffer through colonialism, racial discrimination, and political and economic disadvantages. Historical colonialism today continues within the frames of attitudes, political and legal structures, and economic exploitation based on the race of the populations.

Environmental Justice – what is that?

Environmental Justice is a redistributive justice approach, defending equal resource distribution and harm avoidance regarding race, nationality, and income. Along with other results of racial segregation and historical colonialism, environmental injustice in regard to race and socioeconomic status is one of the occurrences we still observe today. In a political environment in which environmental problems are discussed frequently, with the portrayal of equality in terms of being vulnerable, it must be argued that this is far from the case. People of color and other minorities are victims significantly more often. Environmental injustice or racism can occur on the scale of cities, states, or even neighborhoods.

Examples of Evironmental Injustice

Hurricane Katrina in the U.S.A. serves as an example where some towns and neighborhoods were disproportionately affected by the insufficient and ineffective response based on race. Since regions that are predominantly Black were already unprepared for the disasters, for example, inadequate evacuation resources and infrastructure, they were more deeply affected, highlighting the systematic unequal distribution of resources.

Another example can be found in the Ecuadorian case of marine pollution during the oil extraction by Texaco (now Chevron) in the Amazon Rainforests. Local people have been fighting for compensation for the repercussions and for the multibillion company to be held responsible because the local ecosystem and the livelihood of the population are significantly affected. Alongside other examples from Japan (Minamata Disease), India (Bhopal Gas Tragedy), the USA (Dakota Access Pipeline Protests), and many more, the efforts for justice often remain unresolved.

What is to be done?

Calling something by its proper name has always been a good step, like calling racism where we detect it. However, on its own, it is far from impactful. Some alternatives to participating in the struggle to raise awareness of the intersectionality between race and environmental degradation are advocating policy changes on the state and international level and supporting non-governmental organizations working to protect marginalized communities from environmental harm and injustice.

Intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations also significantly lead this by setting an example and agenda. One can consider some of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the UN as a guide to address the problems in a holistic way. A list of SDGs that draw parallels to environmental justice can be found below.

Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation: addressing issues such as water pollution and inadequate sanitation facilities that disproportionately affect marginalized communities

Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy: promoting renewable clean energy alternatives and thus decreasing the pollution which is not equally distributed

Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities: designing new cities giving way to equal access to resources and services

Goal 13: Climate Action: fighting the disproportionate harm climate change has on marginalized communities.

Goal 14: Life Below Water and Goal 15: Life on Land also can be considered within this frame.

This blog post only addressed a few results racial discrimination brings forward. However, it influences almost all activities of everyday life. The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination works as a reminder that despite progress in some areas, racism is far from eliminated from our lives, and we need to work to reach a more just community by raising our own awareness and others by participating in the initiatives fighting for that end.