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Sunday, Sept. 2, 2001

Zionist 'debate' crowds out slavery issue


LONDON -- Human beings, most philosophers would agree, are not a resource. (Human Resources Department, please note.) But since the rise of civilization, most human beings have been treated as an economic resource and often treated very badly. Indeed, 5 or 10 percent of all the people who have lived during the past 5,000 years have probably been slaves.

This makes it hard for today's Africans or African-Americans to claim compensation for the enslavement of their particular ancestors, just as the multitude of misdeeds committed in the name of nationalism over the years makes it implausible for Arabs to insist on singling out Zionism as a form of racism. These conflicting claims threaten to sabotage the global conference on racism that opened in Durban, South Africa, Friday.

Who cares? Not the conference-going classes, certainly. Washington has said it would boycott the conference unless the organizers drop the nonsense about condemning Zionism and demanding reparations for slavery, but about 10,000 of the usual suspects will go to Durban and enjoy a week of networking by the sea regardless of whether all, or some, or none of the U.S. delegates show up at the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. (I know, they left out Tooth Decay.)

With or without a stripped-down, low-level U.S. delegation, the conference will go through the motions (affecting the real world not one whit), and then they will all go home several good lunches heavier. Yet an opportunity is being lost here. The old "Zionism is racism" accusation has been allowed to steal center-stage from a much more important debate about slavery.

Zionism is not racism. It's merely 19th-century European nationalism exported to the Middle East. It doesn't treat minorities well, but which old-fashioned European nationalist movement ever did? The Arab states who forced the "Zionism" references into the conference texts were indulging in pointless point-scoring.

The slavery allegations are important not because 10 million to 15 million black Africans unwillingly crossed the Atlantic as slaves between the 17th and 19th centuries, but because today's Africa is the world's poorest and most troubled region. Those demanding reparations for slavery are effectively saying that's the reason for Africa's present problems, or a big part of it.

Today's African-Americans also tend to live near the bottom of the local heap in the United States, Brazil and the West Indies: all places where the lighter you are, the higher you are likely to be in income and social status. A lot of people blame that on the legacy of slavery, too.

The Durban conference would not have settled these issues for us, but if it hadn't been hijacked by the Zionism issue it would have stimulated a very useful debate around race, slavery and history.

There is no evidence that the slave trade did any lasting harm to Africa as a whole between the 17th century and the early 19th century (by which time the British Navy had effectively ended it). To remove an average of, say, 60,000 people a year from regions of Africa with a total population of more than 50 million would have had virtually no long-term demographic or economic impact, especially since the process did not involve European invasion and conquest.

The African kingdoms who raided their neighbors or enslaved their own lower classes for sale to the Europeans would have behaved in much the same way if there were no overseas market for slaves. Smaller tribes and kingdoms occasionally got smashed, but that was always happening anyway. European colonization in South Africa was a disaster for the local peoples, but elsewhere along the African coast things were not significantly different in 1800 than they had been in 1600.

By contrast, full-scale colonization by Europeans after about 1875 had a huge impact on Africa, both negative and positive. Whether the negative aspects outweighed the positive is still deeply controversial: For example, much of Africa is now worse off economically and socially than it was before decolonization in the 1960s. But that argument is about colonization (which also happened to most other places); slavery had nothing to do with it.

The true victims of slavery, unsurprisingly, are not the descendants of the people who sold the slaves but the descendants of those who were sold. Though more than half of African-Americans in the United States and smaller proportions in the West Indies and Brazil have now made it into the middle class, a hugely disproportionate number remain outside it.

If it were simply "racism," more recent nonwhite immigrants to these countries would suffer similar disadvantages, which they obviously don't. Specifically, being the descendant of a slave is a huge social and economic handicap in the Americas. As to how much of this disadvantage is due to majority prejudice, and how much is the internalized residue of past trauma, consider this.

In Britain, where majority attitudes are less prejudiced because there has never been large-scale slavery at home, the performance of various ethnic groups is tracked in the schools. African-Americans (almost all from the West Indies) are dead bottom in the rankings. Recent immigrants from black Africa come in at the top, ahead of Chinese, Indians, whites and everybody else. What's the difference? Maybe it's that these Africans are not descended from slaves.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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