On March 21, 1960, South African police shot and killed 69 people at a peaceful rally to protest apartheid “pass” laws in Sharpeville, South Africa.
In 1979, the United Nations first observed March 21 as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and called for an annual day for “solidarity with the peoples struggling against racism and racial discrimination.”
It is a good thing for that world body to recognize how racial discrimination continues to threaten countless lives across the world.
It is good for us to hope for an end to racial discrimination.
It is good for people who believe humans from every racial identity have equal worth and entitlement to justice, and that we should affirm these things to be true.
At the same time, we should not commend ourselves too much, if at all.
On March 21, 2021, people who protest systemic racism and racial discrimination will continue to be vulnerable to abusive and homicidal law enforcement behavior.
The state of Israel will continue to refuse to provide vaccines against COVID-19 to Palestinians in the West Bank (also known as the Occupied Territories).
Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that an Occupying Power, such as Israel vis-à-vis the West Bank, “has the duty of ensuring and maintaining … public health and hygiene in the occupied territory [the West Bank], with particular reference to the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics” (emphasis added).
The Israeli government policy of vaccinating Palestinians with work permits protects the Jewish population in Israel from exposure to COVID-19 from Palestinian workers who work in Israel.
It does not protect the indigenous Palestinian population in the West Bank. Instead, the policy is a blatant example of the racial discrimination decried by the UN International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
People of color and indigenous persons in the United States and elsewhere across the world will continue to be disproportionately vulnerable to abusive and life-threatening law enforcement conduct.
Remember George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, Jacob Blake, Rashard Brooks, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Jordan Davis, John Crawford IV, Michael Brown, Jr., and so many other people in the U.S. who, like the Sharpeville 69 in 1960, and countless others across the world, have been slaughtered, maimed, abused and terrorized in other ways.
National and state politicians in the U.S. will continue to engage in tactics aimed at suppressing voting by people of color and Indigenous people.
Racial discrimination is not lessening. Instead, it seems that racial discrimination is surging. We should not pretend otherwise.
Nor should we ignore that racial discrimination across the world often masquerades as religious liberty and nationalism.
White Christian nationalism in the United States, Zionist nationalism in Israel, Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Hindu extremism in India have produced racist violence and other discrimination in those societies under the guise of religious fundamentalism.
By now, it should be clear that racial discrimination is not based on ignorance, but on will. People choose to be hateful or loving. We choose to be inclusive or discriminatory.
We choose leaders who traffic in racist tropes and stereotypes, and who urge us to believe racist conspiracy theories. And we choose to enact and enforce discriminatory laws and customs.
Symbolic gestures like the International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination cannot overcome willful endorsement of systemic racial discrimination.
Those gestures are no match for daily talk show commentators and deliberate actions by politicians and pundits to stoke feelings of resentment against people who are racially different.
We need – in addition to such symbolic gestures – more people who are committed each day to confronting racism.
We need more people to confront, denounce and condemn others, including civic and cultural leaders, who use racism and power based on racism to inflict harms.
We need to dismantle racial discrimination the same way we have learned to fight infectious disease.
Like infectious disease, racial discrimination will not end merely because we hope it will. We must be willing to treat racism as a mortal threat. Unless and until we do so, we will continue to make hollow annual symbolic announcements.
I am tired of reading about and witnessing symbolic annual announcements about eliminating racial discrimination from people who condone racism and racist policies, practices and processes.
How about you?
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (March 21). The previous article in the series is:
What a Day It Would Be If We Did It | Starlette Thomas
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.