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UN event on racism
Confronting the Silence
Confronting the Silence: UN Special Event Explores Structural Racism

On Tuesday, November 3, the United Nations hosted a special event, sponsored in part by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), designed to shed light on the global causes and mass repercussions of structural racism against people of African descent. 

Harry Belafonte, world-renowned singer, actor, activist and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, was a keynote speaker. He shared how Eleanor Roosevelt and his mother inspired him to become an activist and called for an end to the racial supremacy myth. He ended his remarks by saying, “I am deeply honored and grateful for this opportunity to stand before this launching, and I hope the fruits of this convening will bring the diaspora closer together.” Belafonte has dedicated much of his life to activism for people of color especially as it relates to oppression and racism.

Although some progress has been made at the national, regional and international levels to prevent and eliminate racism against people of African descent, important challenges remain worldwide that still reveal deep-rooted structural racism and racial discrimination.

Alicia Garza, activist and founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, illuminated on the depth that racism permeates American culture and society. She said, “In a country where Black bodies were amongst the first currency in our economy and where Black people are counted as three-fifths of a human being for the purposes of proportioning power to those who owned other people and away from those who were owned, it is hard to find any system, any structure, any policy or practice that’s advancement in the United States is not steeped in our violent origins.”

Bruce Knotts, moderator of the event and director of the UN Office of the UUA, detailed how Unitarian Universalists enthusiastically embraced the powerful message of the Black Lives Matter movement at their 2015 General Assembly in Portland, OR. Many congregations demonstrated their support by hanging banners and signs outside of their sanctuaries. Unfortunately, many of these banners have been vandalized. Knotts shared, “We get hate mail telling us that all lives matter and police lives matter. Here is my response…When the fire department comes to your neighborhood, do you send the firefighters to all the houses or to the house that is on fire? For over 500 years, the house of the people of African descent has been on fire.”

Most of the panelists from the North American perspective focused on how police brutality has personally and profoundly harmed people of African descent living within the United States.

“I want the world to know that letting a child outside to play and never to return home is a mother’s and father’s nightmare,” said Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice who was fatally shot by police as a 12-year-old. She openly wept while sharing her personal and painful experience. “Every morning I wake up, I think about Tamir, but also I wake up looking for change across this nation. I wake up seeking justice for my son and that is why I’m here today.”

Mothers have played a significant role against fighting racism and police brutality for decades. Nicole C. Lee of Mothers against Police Brutality spoke about the important role of mothers and women in this current movement. “We are the backbone, the strategists, and the visionaries…We are the leaders, the organizers, and the foot soldiers. Mothers and daughters of the most affected play an invaluable role in the struggle for justice across the world, not just in the United States.”

Fathers are playing an important role against structural racism as well. John Crawford, Jr., father of John Crawford III who was fatally shot by police in a Walmart, was the final panelist to speak. He said, “We can’t expect the oppressor to help the oppressed. Our condemnation is our contentment.”

He acknowledged that everyone outlined the global perspectives of the problem of racism, but what he wanted was an answer to the question: What do we do now? He expressed hope that this event represented a platform to inspire change in the not-too-distant future.

You can watch the entire event online at UN Web TV.

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About the Author

  • Jill Goddard was the former Public Relations Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

For more information contact pr@uua.org.

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