Struggles against discrimination can benefit us all

By Sean Hawkey
7 Jul 2011

Dr Jorge Ramirez Reyna, president of Asociación Negra de Defensa y Promoción de Derechos Humanos (Black Association for Human Rights Defense and Promotion, ASONEDH) in Peru, reflects on the issue of racism in his country and the role of the conference on the Violence of Racism in Latin America, which was organised by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI) 22-24 June 2011 in Managua, Nicaragua. He is interviewed here by Sean Hawkey.

How is racism playing out in Peru today?

Racism, and racist discrimination in Peru are still strong. This is something historical that isn’t over in the 21st century. There are people who think that because we have our origins in Africa, that we aren’t worthy of respect, that we don’t have the intellectual capacity to occupy public office or other positions of responsibility.

There is generalised prejudice and discrimination against Peruvian people who have African origins. Afro-descendent people in Peru are one of the poorest groups in the country and we are perceived as second-class citizens.

I’ll give you an example: I am a lawyer, and I went to the office of a judge to talk to her about a client who had been detained unfairly. I asked the judge’s secretary if I could see the magistrate in charge of the case, and I was shown through to the judge’s office.

I stood in front of the judge’s desk and the judge asked me how long I had been in prison. Her presumption, based on the colour of my skin, was that I was a prisoner. I told her I was a lawyer, but she didn’t believe me, she asked me for my identification to prove it.

This sort of prejudice is generalised. Crime is racialised, crime is synonymous with blackness and so anyone of African descent is suspected of being a delinquent.

I was recently asked to give a paper at a conference in Miraflores, an upmarket district of Lima, and when I approached the reception I was asked who I was coming to pick up. The presumption was that I was someone’s driver, that I couldn’t possibly be involved in the conference as a speaker.

The predominant attitudes often make me think that we have a long road ahead of us in this struggle against racism.

What is the role of the churches in combating racism?

Lamentably, the churches have been quite indifferent to this issue, they haven’t been our allies. It is important for the churches to begin an internal process of awareness building, and for the churches to incorporate the issues of racism and discrimination in their discourse, in their work.

The Latin American Council of Churches, CLAI, has asked me to help the churches to do this. But, we are just starting this process and we need support of different types.

I think that it is important to do the work with other groups, not only with the churches, but other sectors of society. This is a struggle that everyone needs to be involved in. Struggles against discrimination are for everyone’s benefit, we all need to be convinced of that. A more just society, a more just world, is for the common good.

How do you assess the WCC-CLAI conference on Racism in Latin America?

This has been a very important meeting. Firstly, because we’ve been able to meet, as people of African origin from different countries who are all committed to the work of the churches in a spiritual way, and who are all working against racism.

I believe this sharing of experiences is very important and strengthening in and of itself. On this foundation of sharing experiences there is an emerging commitment to continue this work by going back to our churches to spread the word, to begin and to strengthen processes of awareness-raising.

We all understand that there is a long road ahead, and we are all willing to continue along it. We are doing this for the young people, and we need to involve the young people in the struggle, most of us who are involved in the struggle are in our forties or fifties.

The Afro-descendent people in Peru, the black people, have never lost hope. Despite the discrimination, the very limited possibility of educational and professional fulfilment, the racist attitudes, we have hope. And it is this hope that will allow us to continue along the path against racism, to vindicate our rights as human being, in search of a better world for everyone with the help of our Lord Jesus Christ.

* More information on the conference: http://www.oikoumene.org/en/news/news-management/eng/a/article/2267/wcc-...

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© Sean Hawkey is a journalist and photographer who has worked on a range of ecumenical projects.

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