Addressing Contemporary Forms of Racism——Challenges Posed by the Pandemic and the National Responses – Conference Summary

The internet conference on Addressing Contemporary Forms of Racism: Challenges Posed by the Pandemic and the National Responses was successfully held on July 3rd, 2020. Guided by China Society for Human Rights Studies, the conference was co-hosted Central South University Human Rights Center, Cross Cultural Human Rights Centre-Vrije University Amsterdam and China Top Think Tank-Wuhan University Institute of International law. Nearly 20 experts and scholars in the field of human rights from China, the United States, the Netherlands, Germany, South Africa and other countries as well as the United Nations attended. The theme of the internet conference is to address contemporary forms of racism, the challenges posed by COVID-19. The presentations given have important theoretical significance and practical value to eliminate racism and promote inclusiveness for the international community.

In her conference statement, Professor E. Tendayi Achiume, the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and related Intolerance, said that we have witnessed an alarming rise in racist and xenophobic incidents directed at certain groups solely on the basis of their race, ethnicity, national origin and religion all over the world. She further calls upon international cooperation on combating COVID-19 and to ensure that the coordinated efforts contribute to a holistic concept of health and well-being, including freedom from racism and xenophobia. 

The participated experts and scholars conducted in-depth discussions concerning contemporary racism issues, the challenges brought by COVID-19 pandemic and the national responses. They agreed that racism and racial discrimination were deep-rooted and that the COVID-19 pandemic had deteriorated the situation of specific racial groups. In order to effectively address the new challenges brought by racism during the COVID-19 crisis, countries are obliged to respond accordingly and positively. 

Ⅰ. General Awareness of Contemporary Forms of Racism

For a long time, the international community has made great contributions to eliminate all forms of racism and to promote universal respect for human rights as well as fundamental freedoms. Systematic racism and racial discrimination, however, have existed for such a long time that the elimination of malpractices requires the concerted and coordinated efforts of all parties. 

A. Contemporary forms of racism are deeply rooted

Racism and racial discrimination have been around for a long time, said Augustine Hungwe, research fellow of Cross-cultural Human Rights Centre of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He explored the episteme-historical construction of African and people of African descent as racialized, inferior, dispensable “other” as a global phenomenon. He regarded key concepts, themes, schema, frameworks and paradigms to be interrogated include the problematization of the history of ideas (Hegel) and the philosophical intellectualization of race and racism by Kant, Rousseau, Voltaire, Locke and Montesquieu as a toxic racist legacy of the European Enlightenment. He pointed out that Enlightenment thinkers provided a philosophical justification for racism. In this regard, Serges Alain Djoyou Kamga, professor of Human Rights, Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute, University of South Africa, agreed that racial discrimination rooted in Enlightenment philosophers as John Locke supported the view that Blacks have no history and did not contribute to humanity and he found that “it took the scientific thought of the Enlightenment to create an enduring racial taxonomy and the ‘color-coded, white-over-black’ ideology with which we are familiar” today in the USA. In addition, Professor Brij Mohan, dean emeritus of the School of Social Work at Louisiana State University, spoke about the recent Floyd case in the United States, argued that poor and black families have disproportionately suffered the ravages of natural catastrophe as well as misguided social engineering in the wake of coronavirus pandemic. The Inequality Engine (Geoff Mann, LRB, 4 June, 2020:25) is, however, driven by ideologies of “poverty of culture” (Mohan, B. 2011) that sustains White Privilege, Black Plague and many systemic brutality and injustice. 

B. Racism and racial discrimination is widespread and needs to be addressed urgently

At the end of May 2020, George Floyd, an African-American man in Minnesota suffered police brutality, which claimed his life and caused “Black Lives Matter” protests in many cities in the United States and beyond, attracting much attention and has become a heated discussed issue in the international community. In fact, the occurrence of racial discrimination and its rapid upsurge is not accidental but the result of a cluster of factors, the omnipresence of racial discrimination plays a fundamental role.

Experts and scholars extensively cited racial discrimination and xenophobia in various countries, and agreed that racism seriously hindered the overall pace and effectiveness of global epidemic prevention and control. Professor Tom Zwart, director of the Cross-cultural Human Rights Centre of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Professor of Cross-cultural Law at Utrecht University, pointed out that the Chinese community in the Netherlands has suffered and is still suffering from racism, but members of the community have replaced and developed tactics to combat such racism at the micro level. Krish Chetty, chief researcher at the Inclusive Economic Development Division of the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa, stated that income and wealth inequalities in South Africa largely present in terms of racial differences. The poor black working-class majority have very different lived-experiences from the wealthy whites racial group. These differences exacerbate racial tensions in South Africa. Peter Herrmann, professor at Central South University Human Rights Centre, pointed out that the murder of George Floyd had been the suffocation of a man, and also part of the killing of social spaces of society. Racism is an ultimate expression of individualism, he maintained.

Ⅱ. COVID-19 Brings Great Challenges to the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

Almost all pandemic in history has been accompanied by the prevalence of racism and xenophobia. The global outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic has become a severe test and posed great challenges to the elimination of racial discrimination. 

  1. COVID-19 deteriorated the situation of specific ethnic groups

Krish Chetty pointed out that the underlying cause of the inequality have roots in capitalist class system which treat people differently based on income. Opportunities for the rich are far greater and more easily accessible than those experienced by the poor. Access to food, basic services (such as water, electricity, sanitation) and justice is often delineated along racial lines. These differences and challenges have been exacerbated by the corona-virus crisis. Dr. Peng Qinxuan, associate researcher at China Top Think Tank-Wuhan University, further argued that during the COVID-19 pandemics, people of African–origins, female and senior age are disproportionately affected on the basis of their lesser health and socioeconomic status, and such disadvantage are amplified by the overlapped social categories. COVID-19 is not, as many people think, the great equalizer; it actually is an inequality amplifier and reinforces the existing racism, sexism and ageism, she concluded.

B. The erroneous remarks of some public figures and politicians contributed to racism and xenophobia 

Since the outbreak, some public figures and government officials have repeatedly played up the “blame games” and “theory of virus discrimination” in public places and the media. Instead of using the scientifically endorsed name of the virus, they adopt names such as “Chinese Virus” and “Wuhan Virus” with geographic references, typically referring to its emergence in China. Given the influence of public figures, these erroneous statements that linked virus to specific regions may well serve to the spread of pre-existing racism and xenophobia as well as isolate and stigmatize specific ethnic groups, causing widespread doubt and universal condemnation in the international community. 

Professor Hao Yaming of Human Rights Center at Nankai University used the term “officially-driven racial discrimination” to refer to the fact that some authorities made use of COVID-19 pandemic to promote and guide discrimination and prejudice against specific ethnic groups, so as to achieve their specific political, economic, social, cultural and even illegal purposes. Professor Sun Shiyan, researcher at the Institute of International Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argued that as an aspect of racial discrimination and a type of hate speech, COVID-19-related racist hate speech has multiple manifestations and target groups, which not only affect many racial groups, but also may threaten international solidarity crucial to the response to the pandemic. When mainstream media are controlled by public figures to make racist remarks, the consequences are the most serious. Professor Mao Junxiang, executive director of the Central South University Human Rights Center, pointed out that the “virus discrimination” played up by state leaders and the media were the expression of racial discrimination, ethnic discrimination and other forms of discrimination in the name of freedom of speech. 

III. All States Need to Engage in Coordinated Efforts to Deal with Contemporary Forms of Racism

A. Nation states should take positive measures to eliminate racial discrimination 

Nation states are at the forefront to fight against the pandemic and to eliminate racial discrimination. At the critical stage of the global coordinated endeavor against COVID-19, all countries are suggested to actively take measures to eradicate all forms of racial discrimination, and to take priority in protecting the right to life and the right to health of the people, for an international community free of apartheid and racial discrimination. 

Professor Mao Junxiang emphasized that in accordance with the state obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, states shall regulate the remarks on “virus discrimination” publicized by private media and take positive measures to eliminate racial discrimination within their territory. Professor Sun Shiyan seconded that states are obliged to counter COVID-19-related racist hate, on top of which, a large number of non-state actors also have an important role to play.

B. The international community should shape the value of racial equality in a right manner

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Under the guidance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms is a common aspiration that people all over the world strive to achieve. Hence, Professor Mao Junxiang called for further international cooperation to promote the formation of a constructive discourse concerning “virus discrimination”. Professor Brij Mohan stressed that a pernicious creed, belief system, breeds the “virus of injustice” that demands radical transformations to combat “the politics of pandemics”. He further argued that racial equality could only be achieved by changing people’s underlying perceptions of racism. Ding peng, PhD candidate of Wuhan University Institute for Human Rights Studies, stated that to deal with the pandemic, people need to find scientific solutions together. He further suggested that we need to reestablish the common baseline of fundamental human rights such as life, health, freedom and dignity, and advance global solidarity beyond the narrow identities of nation and country.

C. Public figures and the media should assume greater responsibility in eliminating racism 

Public figures, government officials and other groups with greater influence play an important guiding role in eliminating racial discrimination and promoting racial equality and non-discrimination principles. Professor E. Tendayi Achiume stated that if public officials have no real understanding of the meaning and requirements of international human rights racial equality and non-discrimination principles, it is less likely they can fully leverage the potential of these principles. Professor Mao Junxiang emphasized that politicians and media shall bear a sense of social responsibilities to avoid spreading, dispersing or supporting racist and xenophobic statements that are not conducive to international cooperation in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. 

D. The international human rights legal system needs to be further improved Professor Serges Alain Djoyou Kamga pointed out that we needed to take a systematic change of measures while strictly enforcing our anti-discrimination laws so that a community of shared future for mankind could be jointly built. Professor E. Tendayi Achiume noted that more substantive education in law schools and beyond on racial and xenophobic discrimination are needed, because human rights problems subject to a comprehensive international human rights legal framework. Dr. Peng Qinxuan argued that multiple discrimination is not only a mere legal concept, but a reality faced by many people. That’s why multiple discrimination gets adopted in the international legal documents and that the law could intervene and offer appropriate remedies when people suffered inequalities for one or more reasons.

Summary provided by Central South University on 25/7/2020

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