A Blog Post by Forest Whitaker

Humanity is in crisis. I think, of course, of COVID-19 and its direct impact on our personal, social, economic, and cultural lives. But I think also of the virus’s  deeper, more malign impact, which revealed and sometimes highlighted the darker sides of our societies. Indeed, the novel coronavirus seems to have caused the surge of an old virus, one that lives not in our bodies but in our minds: the virus of racism and discrimination. In many places, racial inequalities and exclusions have been exacerbated and various racial minorities have been disproportionately hit by the virus or increasingly targeted by systemic violence. Gender inequality has also risen as women have lost more freedoms and opportunities to lockdowns measures – and this is without mentioning the rise of violence against women both in rich and in poor countries.

This apparent regress is all the more disturbing that it came at the end of a period in which the views of racists and supremacists seem to have gained traction in public opinion. The hopes created by the election of Barack Obama to the White House look like a distant and faint dream. Time and again, though, we have seen how political progress can be stalled by resurging attitudes and practices of racism and discrimination. Growing up in Los Angeles’s Watts neighborhood in the late sixties and seventies, I have seen and experienced racism and discrimination in the form of violent arbitrary arrests, segregated schools, dilapidated streets, and countless other humiliating injustices. We have, as many countries have, laws banning racism and discrimination, but institutions do not change overnight. As President Biden proclaimed in his inaugural address, “A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us.”

COVID-19 reminded us that any progress on the path to freedom from racism and discrimination can only be understood as fragile. This is the crisis that Humanity is going through today: while there is a growing rejection of racism and discrimination in all the countries of the world, at the same time, we lack tools and opportunities to build proper defenses in the minds of people. This is what puts our gains in jeopardy. As UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation, I believe that we need to step up our efforts in the fight against racism and discrimination. This means strengthening our actions in the areas of education, the sciences, culture, and communication and information – all these domains are vital to open the minds and hearts of people to ideas of tolerance and solidarity.

More importantly perhaps, we must engage ordinary citizens by giving them space to initiate and develop the civic vaccines that will one day save us from the scourge of racism and discrimination. This is the most powerful approach. I witness it every day through my foundation, the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI). We provide young people from conflict-affected places knowledge and skills that they later apply to foster peace in their schools, families, and communities. Young people are a unique group in this respect. We are responsible for preventing racism and discrimination from alienating them either as victims or perpetrators. But they should also be mobilized to do the same for their communities at large. Youth have a unique energy, as their transitioning from adolescence to adulthood is a time of questioning and exploration combined with a thirst for action and transformation.

In this, the United Nations rightly pointed to youths as the focus in 2021 for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, with this year’s title “Youths standing up against racism.” By mobilizing youths to fight against racism and discrimination, we can have a critical impact both in the future, when they take charge of our communities, but in the present, by fostering their participation in the lives of their communities. This is critical in these times of COVID, when young people are a group that has greatly suffered from the pandemic and its consequences – even as, demographically speaking, they are least likely to be susceptible to the virus. If too many of them are marginalized and conclude that they have nothing to hope from society, or worse, we take the risk of exposing them to believing that ideals of tolerance and solidarity are vain and shallow. This is to say that the fight against racism and discrimination cannot succeed indeed if it is not part of a general effort to promote inclusion across the board. Racism and discrimination cannot be eliminated, in the end, if we do not learn to live together.

Watch Forest Whitaker’s speech at UNESCO’s Global Forum against racism and discrimination:

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