Vital Signs

Racial Conflicts

Three days before the world “changed forever,” U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson tried to put a pretty face on a lackluster summit that had just ended in Durban, South Africa.  The nine-day conference, designed to address “racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance,” was doomed when the United States and Israel withdrew over objections to two items on the agenda.  One item under consideration was reparations for slavery, an institution that officially ended in the United States more than a century ago yet continues in many countries today.  The second was a push by a bloc of Arab nations to declare Israeli militancy in Palestine racist.  That proposal was absurd by all scientific standards and would only have escalated violence by perpetuating an ancient myth of human hatred.

In her closing remarks, Robinson admitted that “The issues have been addressed, not answered.  But we have a framework.  We have made a start and that is what counts.”  Then, while mentioning moving testimony from people “on the receiving end of racism and discrimination,” she claimed racism is the motivation for slavery.  By strict definition, however, slavery is an economic institution; it is not necessarily racist.

Certainly, when slavery was legal in parts of the United States, the vast majority of slaveowners were white, while...

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