On Monday, December 23, 2013, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution establishing the International Decade for People of African Descent, which will run from January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2024. The aim will be to raise social consciousness in the fight against prejudice, intolerance, xenophobia, and racism.
The resolution follows a series of related efforts, including the General Assembly’s December 12, 1997 resolution, which convened the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, and the December 16, 2005 resolution, which guided the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.
Assembly representatives emphasized its importance. Verene Shepherd, chair of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, stated that the “indigestible fishbone of slavery” continued to stick in the throat due to the persistence of its legacies. She added that the impact of slavery and colonialism were most obvious in the Americas and on the African content itself.
Responses from Brazilian representatives reinforced this perspective. Bruno Santos de Oliveira noted that the 2010 national census data indicated that “more than 100 million Brazilians, more than half the population, had declared themselves African descendants,” and that the country has the largest number of people of African descent outside of Africa. The Brazilian Delegation recalled that the country continues to face racism and intolerance inherited from its colonial past.
This legacy is evident in high poverty levels, which vary significantly by region within Brazil. More than half of all poor Brazilians live in the Northeast, which is home to the highest concentration of African descendants. In the Northeast, the head of the household is often illiterate, despite attending school, and works in agriculture. Poor households are generally quite large, having nearly twice as many children when compared to families in higher socioeconomic levels, with limited resources and access to utilities. In Salvador, the capital of the northeastern state of Bahia, approximately 80 percent of the population is said to be of African ancestry. Some critics claim that “the majority of Brazilians of African descent in Salvador are an example of continuing discrimination, living in the poorest areas, their lives often blighted by violence and largely excluded from political power.” Although recent studies indicate that the income gap between black and mixed race Brazilians and that of white Brazilians has been falling, a notable difference remains. From access to a high quality education to health and housing, Brazilians of African descent are usually worse off than their white counterparts
Oliveira indicated that Brazil has made strides in the last decade to address these harsh realities. For example, Brazil established a secretariat at the ministerial level for the promotion of racial equality, designed to reflect the Brazilian government’s commitment to the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, and its willingness to support the Decade accordingly. Diplomat Albino Proli, international advisor of Policies to Promote Racial Equality, emphasized Brazil’s influence in promoting the Decade, which was intensified after the Ibero-American Summit in 2011 in commemoration of the International Year of African Descendants, held in Salvador.
But affirmative action policies in Brazil, which Americas Quarterly previously covered in its Summer 2013 issue, will most likely prove to be more effective at producing tangible results.
Responses to the Decade Resolution in Brazil have been positive. The Brazilian government released a statement of “great satisfaction” for its direct involvement in the negotiation process that led to the proclamation of the Decade. Gilberto Gil, musician and former minister of culture from 2003-2008 also communicated his support, congratulating the UN on this undertaking. He highlighted the significance of efforts of slaves in Brazil’s development, but recognized that the consequences of slavery impede the ability of many Brazilians to escape its aftermath. Ana Katia Alves dos Santos, Federal University of Bahia professor of education who focuses on cultural identity and diversity, emphasized the concerns that exist between ideology and application: “I hope this ‘Decade for People of African descent’ does not become merely an abstract space for debate and intellectualism, but provides effective action to guarantee greater rights and more life for those of African descent.” She emphasized education as fundamental to altering the situation for African descendants and particularly “critical education” to motivate them to participate in the struggle for the benefit of the entire black population.
Social consciousness through initiatives like the Decade is pivotal to cultivating strength in the battle against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and intolerance. Yet, ten years of relevant events, campaigns and superficial governmental discourse will not ameliorate the devastating everyday living many people of African descent confront. Ultimately, policies that target access to quality education, adequate housing and health care, in order to tackle the generation-to-generation transmission of poverty perpetuating racial prejudices and stereotypes, must be the primary focus.