Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance constitute serious violations and obstacles to the full enjoyment of all human rights and deny the evident truth that all human beings are born free and equal, in dignity and rights.
First, it is essential to distinguish two essential aspects of discrimination: attitude or action. Attitude refers to each person’s mind, while action involves behaviours that also affect others. However, in practice, racist and xenophobic attitudes, and opinions, to a large extent, lead to actions that affect others negatively through insults, verbal abuse, humiliation or even physical aggression and violence, leading to differentiated treatment and thus harming the exercise of rights and freedoms. This type of action can be characterized as discrimination, which, under certain conditions, can be punished by law.
In general, we can identify three elements that together constitute discrimination and that are common to all forms of discrimination: actions, that is, distinction, exclusion, restriction and preference, based on categories; classification of different types, such as ethnicity, colour, ancestry, national origin, gender, age, disability, among others; and the purpose or consequences of preventing victims from fully exercising or enjoying their human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Consequently, we must also distinguish another type of discrimination: direct discrimination and indirect discrimination. Direct discrimination means that one person is treated less favourably than the other in a similar situation. On the other hand, indirect discrimination means that an apparently neutral provision or measure actually puts a person or group at a disadvantage compared to others.
Racism and Xenophobia
Racism causes harm by isolating and hurting people and dividing communities. Both active racism and passive acceptance of injustice and privileges based on race affect both victims and perpetrators’ mental health and psychological functioning. The causes and consequences of racism and related intolerance and the means for their continuation are complex, involving legal vulnerabilities and discrimination, economic and educational disadvantages, social and political marginalization, and psychological victimization. Racism and discrimination have long-term health effects, as victims experience severe symptoms of stress and psychosomatic illnesses and self-harm.
Racism exists at different levels, depending on the power used and the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator: personal level (attitudes, values, beliefs of someone), interpersonal level (behaviour towards others), cultural level (values and norms of social conduct) and institutional level (laws, customs, traditions and practices).
The former apartheid regime in South Africa is a lived example of an institutionalized form of racism and racial discrimination. Currently, “race” is understood as a social construction. However, this term “race” is racist because it presupposes and defends the erroneous belief that there are different races. Today’s racists place more emphasis on cultural differences rather than biological characteristics, and one can speak of a recently developed “cultural racism” that, most likely, represents the best notion for most of the real attitudes of people who, today, are racist. Even racism as a way of thinking can be harmful, but without expression or manifestation, racist ideas cannot be sanctioned by the law. Only if these prejudices and thoughts lead to discriminatory policies, social practices, hate speech or the separation of groups, can we speak of sanctionable discriminatory actions or racial discrimination.
On the other hand, the phenomenon of xenophobia is described as the morbid fear of foreigners or foreign countries and is also characterized by attitudes, prejudices and behaviours that they reject and exclude, based on the view that they are foreigners or strangers to society. In other words, xenophobia is a feeling based on irrational images and ideas that lead to a simplistic “good and bad” scenario. Like racism, xenophobia is sanctioned by international law.
The distinction between racism and xenophobia is not legally important and the impact on victims of racist or xenophobic behaviour and acts is always the same, as it deprives people of their potential and the opportunity to pursue their plans and dreams, profoundly damaging the self-esteem and self-confidence, and in millions of cases, it even costs them their lives.
Racial violence is a particular and serious example of the impact of racism, constituting specific acts of violence and harassment carried out against a person or group based on colour, ancestry or national/ethnic origin. Building a group of people as a threat is an essential part of the political and social environment in which acts of violence based on hate arise.
During the last decades of the fight against racism and racial discrimination, a broader understanding of the term racism has developed, including the view that all societies in the world are affected and harmed by it. The international community undertook the task of determining the root causes of racism and demanding the necessary reforms to prevent the eruption of conflicts rooted in racism or racial discrimination. However, despite all attempts to abolish policies and practices based on these phenomena, these theories and practices persist or even gain ground and take on new forms, such as “ethnic cleansing”, which the world witnessed during various conflicts, namely the case of the Rwanda conflict.
In conclusion, it is necessary that all States of the World, as well as civil society, remains committed to the fight against racism and racial discrimination, putting into practice all forms of combating racism and thus allowing the universal principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights take all its meaning – “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.
Written by Maria Luisa Pereira