Creating a Trans-Atlantic Agenda on Race
By Ronald Roach
Academic officials and policy-makers from the United States and the European Commission convened the first two of three planned conferences last month aimed at solving problems of racial discrimination and xenophobia in Europe and the United States. Although organizers say the conferences grew largely out of a desire to help European policy-makers peacefully manage the immigration of non-Whites into European countries, they expressed hopes that Black Americans and other American minorities would seek experiences in European societies that could inform efforts to address racism and discrimination in the United States.
Entitled the “Trans-Atlantic Conference on Race and Xenophobia,” the weeklong, dual conference got under way in Chicago and reconvened in Washington, D.C., at Howard University. Organizations responsible for convening the conferences included the Howard University Department of African Studies, the University of Illinois-Urbana and the European Commission. A third trans-Atlantic conference will be held in Brussels, the seat of the European Union parliament, in 2003, according to organizers. The European Commission is the European Union’s executive organization.
During the Chicago sessions, at least 15 European officials in addition to American-based conference attendees toured Chicago-area social action and community development sites. Conference participants also attended panel discussions in Chicago.
During the three-day Washington conference, attendees listened to and learned from expert panelists on numerous discussion topics, ranging from the African American church to the role of non-governmental organizations dealing in combating racial discrimination in Latin America. Dr. Robert J. Cummings, chair of the African Studies department at Howard University, presided over the Washington conference.
Conference organizers have placed high hopes on bringing policy-makers in dialogue with academics to help Europeans learn to live in highly racially and ethnically diverse communities. The participation of European parliament officials in the conferences is considered a vital part of the overall effort, according to Dr. Jack Knott, the director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.
“We need an intellectual base from which to attack these issues,” says Glyn Ford, a member of the European Parliament who gave a keynote speech at the Howard conference.
“There’s great concern over the rise of ultra-right-wing parties in the countries of the European Union. And it boils down to a single word — fear. Politicians are looking to exploit the fears of the people,” Dr. Guenter Burghardt, the European Commission’s ambassador to the United States told conference attendees in Washington.
For Cherry Short, a Jamaican-born Black activist and a political official based in the Wales region of the United Kingdom, there’s a tremendous challenge in combating the rise of extremist groups and far-right political organizations. During a panel discussion at the Howard conference, Short described in a presentation entitled “Extreme Right-Wing Movements” how far-right groups are gaining political clout in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe. She said the right-wing groups are gaining popularity largely due to their aggressive anti-immigration stances. They also are gaining strength despite the fact that some of the group’s followers have increasingly been committing acts of violence against non-White residents and immigrants.
As the Wales representative on the U.K. Commission for Racial Equality, Short says the conference provided her an opportunity to learn first-hand about grass-roots organizations in the United States that work in predominantly poor and minority communities. The organizations she visited in Chicago offered her a perspective on community development and advocacy that is almost non-existent in the United Kingdom, according to Short. The United Kingdom lacks a political and social infrastructure out of which minorities can organize to attract attention and resources to distressed communities, she explains.
“I was fascinated to see what the Urban League is doing in Chicago. I saw Black women’s organizations making a great contribution to the lives of the women they serve,” Short says.
Dr. Maria Diedrich, a literature professor at the University of Muenster in Germany and the author of Love Across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass, says the idea of a trans-Atlantic dialogue focused on race and xenophobia can renew the cultural and intellectual exchange that has long existed between African Americans and Europeans. She says that there’s been considerable scholarship conducted that has examined the impact of European experiences on Black American intellectuals and leaders. However, she contends there has been very little work done to describe how Black Americans have influenced European intellectual and cultural life.
“We need to know the impact that individuals, such as (Frederick) Douglass, (W.E.B.) DuBois and (Richard) Wright, had on the Europeans, rather than merely see American Blacks as the only beneficiaries of their European experiences,” Diedrich says.
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