Racial Groups

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Racial Groups

Even if from a medical and biological point of view, all of humankind belongs to one race, namely the human race (as the UNESCO Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice [1978] emphasized), all human beings belong to a single species and are descended from a common stock. Legal and political language use the term races in the plural sense in order to cover different ethnicities or geographically characterizable subgroups, such as Caucasians, Africans, Mongoloids. Because of the well-established (but erroneous) custom, political and legal language is still using this term.


Racism as a policy is more than the affirmation or the recognition of special human characteristics linked to color, facial characteristics, or other visible specificities. Racism as a policy attributes a distinct legal status to certain members of a society. Racism can be manifested inter alia in the postulation of an alleged "superior race," having more rights than others, but also as the complete or partial denial of rights to special human subgroups.

Different religions have different approaches to the diversity of humankind: Certain religions recognize the distinct legal status of certain human groups; other religions, like Judaism and Christianity, are rooted in the divine unity of humankind. According to the Bible, God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Gen. 1:26). Nevertheless, racism occured in several Christian states during their history.

For the common perception of the term racism, one can refer to the United Nations (UN) International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) which states that "any doctrine of superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous" and that "there is no justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice, anywhere."

Racism can be manifested in several forms, from the violation of minority rights to segregation and apartheid to genocide, with genocide being the most extreme form of racial hatred. Genocide aims not only to oppress a people group, but to achieve the complete destruction of distinct human communities.

Apartheid policy in South Africa aimed to perpetuate the white minority's power over black masses by denying blacks' political rights. When Afrikaans recognized that they could not maintain this policy which was condemned by the international community, they sought escape through the bantustan policy, which created "homelands" according to tribal appartenance. The alleged citizens of these homelands were considered immigrant workers in the key cities and plantations of South Africa. The United Nations appealed at that time with the strongest terms against the recognition of the bantustans as sovereign states. When apartheid was abolished, Nelson Mandela established a well-functioning compromise that involved cooperation between blacks and whites and between the different black communities.

Racism often has deep roots. The persecution of racial groups in some African states is partly due to their colonial heritage. The colonial powers often used enthic groups as the local administrative staff and as the auxiliary force of the police and the army. The life of these tribal communities became very threatened once sovereinty had been granted to the country. In Rwanda, the Tutsis were considered traitors by the formerly more oppressed Hutus, who formed the ruling majority of the new country. Until the 1990s, harassment, intimidation campaigns, and pogroms were organized by the Hutu elite. In Nigeria in the 1960s, the Ibos unsuccessfully attempted to secede by creating Biafra, a decision which ended in genocide-like bloodshed. During the same period even the anticolonialist freedom fighters were organized, despite the official name of their organization in Angola or Zimbabwe. After the country was liberated from colonial oppression, the organizations entered into armed conflicts between themselves, especially when governmental power was monopolized by one of them. Inherited artificial boundaries have generally nothing to do with ethnic and linguistic realities, and the imported and imitated nation-state concept contributed to the maintenance of the animosity in Africa. Religious differences between Christians, Muslims, and Animists often contribute to wounds remaining unhealed.

Fighting Racism

Several documents related to the fight against racism have been adopted by the United Nations, and some of them are of binding nature. Two examples are the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) and the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (1973). Other documents are recommendations of the UN General Assembly (i.e., the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination [1963]) or of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), such as the Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice (1978); the Declaration on Fundamental Principles Concerning the Contribution of the Mass Media to Strengthening Peace and International Understanding to the Promotion of Human Rights and to Countering Racialism, Apartheid and Incitement to War (1978).

The United Nations has defined its focus on fighting racism: the fight against apartheid and institutional segregation, the promotion of the media in the destruction of sometimes deeply rooted stereotypes, and the reduction of economic and social differences. Therefore, these documents proclaim not only the resolute fight for the eradication of racism, but they also emphasize the importance of affirmative action in order to enhance the standing of the disadvantaged group and achieve genuine equality among all people.

Since the time that apartheid became abolished, the attention of the United Nations and other international organizations turned to the fight against anti-Semitism and racial intolerance, the victims of which are often immigrant workers. They have also sought to fight against racism against the Roma community in Europe, as well as the indigenous peoples all over the world, but especially in America and Asia.

The importance of good education and career motivations are emphasized by the international organizations, with the aim of diminishing the dependence of these communities on per capita subsidies, which is an underlying cause of overpopulation in underdeveloped countries in the Third World.

The need to correct the failures of the nation-state concept in Africa is of utmost importance. In the 1990s and 2000s, so-called "transitional justice" programs have been introduced in several African (and South American) states—traditional battlefields of genocide—to show them how they were manipulated and to teach them how to prevent the renewal of racial hatred and of ethnic conflict. In the transitional justice programs, truth-seeking seems to be more important to victims than the penalization of petty offenders. However, this does not negate the necessity for the trial and punishment of the instigators of crimes, including those members of the government or armed forces who may have been responsible.

SEE ALSO Ethnic Groups; Minorities; Racism


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Péter Kovács

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Racial Groups

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