Bush Must Not Obstruct World Racism Conference

When some organizers of the upcoming United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, threatened to tack incendiary resolutions on the agenda denouncing Zionism and demanding reparations for slavery, the predictable happened. President Bush screamed foul and said that the United States would stay home. Congress quickly passed a non-binding resolution backing him. The resolution's backers, mostly reparations activists and representatives from Arab countries, instantly branded Bush a racial obstructionist for ducking these issues.

This is a convenient label to plaster on him. In the past few weeks, Bush's foes -- and even some friends -- called him an environmental obstructionist for refusing to endorse the Kyoto Accords on Global Warming. He's been called a health obstructionist for not committing more U.S. dollars to the global fund to fight AIDS and other diseases in Africa and Asia. And he's been tagged as a peace obstructionist for backing out of germ warfare talks and attempting to scrap arms control agreements.

Though Bush can be pilloried for soft-peddling affirmative action, racial profiling, hate crimes, and the death penalty, and saying and doing nothing about the Florida voting debacle that still rankles many Blacks, the racial obstructionist label is one that doesn't fit. His demand that the conference excise any resolution condemning Zionism from the agenda is consistent with U.S. policy. Then President Jimmy Carter, and every president since, denounced the U.N. resolution passed in 1975 that equated Zionism with racism and relentlessly demanded that the resolution be repealed. A decade ago, the United Nations finally dumped it and even the Palestinian Liberation Organization publicly rejected the slogan. Still, this doesn't mean that Israel's divisive domestic and aggressive military policies toward the Palestinians is not a legitimate subject for the conference to debate.

The issue of slave reparations is just as touchy a policy issue for the Bush administration. It insists that slavery ended decades ago, that the slaves and their slavemasters are long dead, that the U.S. government has no legal obligation to pay reparations, and that the issue is racially inflammatory. Bush and former President Bill Clinton scrupulously avoided any public mention of bills introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) in Congress during the past decade to establish a commission to study the reparations issue. They also ignored a bill twice introduced by Rep. Tony Hall (D-OH) that called for Congress to apologize for slavery. Clinton, whom of all presidents would have been the most likely to support this call, touched off a brief flurry by raising the possibility of an apology, but then quickly backing away from it.

But even though Bush's opposition to reparations is consistent with past and present U.S. hostility toward the subject, this doesn't mean that it should not be discussed. The U.S. government encoded slavery in the Constitution, and protected and nourished it in law and public policy for more than a century. And, in the near century after slavery's end, legal segregation, peonage, and racial terrorism has saddled the Black poor with a terrible legacy of poverty, violence, and education and health neglect. The U.S. also applauded the decision by German corporations to pay compensation to slave laborers in Nazi concentration camps, and helped broker a deal in which Swiss bankers agreed to pay billions to Holocaust victims for pillaging their bank accounts.

While Bush should not make the colossal mistake of using reparations and the Zionism issues as an excuse to boycott the conference, conference organizers also must not make the equally colossal mistake of permitting these issues to sink the conference. It is an historic milestone that European nations, Canada and the United States, finally acknowledge that racism fuels much of the inequality and poverty in Asia and Africa and perpetuates conflict and division between these nations and the West. The conference also presents the golden opportunity for western nations to go on record firmly opposing racism and intolerance and to pledge to combat their corrosive affects. The conference also could wring greater commitments from the wealthy nations to move faster on debt relief, pour more funds into AIDS treatment and prevention programs, vastly increase development aid, and negotiate more equitable trade pacts with non-white nations.

The stakes are much too high to let political pettiness and ideological demagoguery torpedo the once-in-a-millennium chance nations have to come to grips with the monster evils of racial bigotry and intolerance that have wreaked havoc on the world for centuries. Bush must do everything he can to make sure that the U.S. is present and accounted for at Durban, and conference organizers must do everything they can to make sure that it is.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson (ehutchi344@aol.com) is a syndicated columnist and president of The National Alliance for Positive Action.

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