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Guest Blog: Addressing Racism, Xenophobia, Intolerance, and Discrimination

Johnetta “Netta” Elzie

Ferguson protester, author and cultural commentator. 


Distinguished moderator, delegates and colleagues. I am grateful for the opportunity to be present here today and I would like to thank the OSCE for inviting me to introduce the session Addressing Racism, Xenophobia, Intolerance, and Discrimination. 


It’s important to identify solutions to the problem of racism, intolerance, and discrimination, especially in spaces like this because too many of us — Black people specifically live with the realities and consequences of these negative experiences every day. The experience of being in Warsaw, Poland the last few days have provided me with a chance to exist without the stress and anxiety that comes with being Black in America. The feeling of having to look over my shoulder, being concerned by the constant watch of local and state law enforcement has been replaced with profound peace. A peace that I imagine white people experience often.  A profound peace that accompanies never having to worry about being the victim of crimes of intolerance, discrimination, and hate.  


Beyond the significance of this feeling of peace, I want to stress the importance of addressing racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and discrimination because they have significant health implications. African descendants carry racial trauma in our DNA, which is exacerbated by the additional stress, terror and trauma inflicted upon our bodies as a result of racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and discrimination.  These additional burdens take years from our lives, cost families and governments hundreds of thousands of dollars in otherwise unnecessary costs and threaten our collective security, health, and wellness.  


If we, as a body of concerned global citizens, are to address the health and wellness needs of the most marginalized, which is required to ensure we all thrive, it is imperative that we work better together to address racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and discrimination. 


I, unfortunately, have personal intimate experience with some of the work required to address racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and discrimination.


In August 2014, I learned of the death of Michael Brown Jr. via Twitter, a popular social media platform that facilitates the exchange of information. Michael Brown was an eighteen-year-old Black recent high school graduate who was walking down the street with his friend Dorian when they encountered Darren Wilson. Michael was shot six times in the middle of the day, not too far from my house. He was not the first and sadly, without intervention he will not be the last. 


It struck me that I learned that Mike Mike, as the children in his neighborhood affectionately referred to him, was murdered via social media–the story of Michael’s murder was not shared on the local news.  When the local news finally decided to talk about Mike’s murder it was to portray him as a criminal–to suggest that he deserved to die.  


Michael’s death hit me hard because in him I saw my friend Stephon Averyhart. Stephon was killed in February of 2014 by the St. Louis City police, in a back alley near his home. There was never an explanation given to his family or friends about why he was killed. Stephon, like most Black men in America, struggled with the weight of racism specifically with pejorative perceptions of Black men as lazy violent criminals. Perceptions that are rooted in transatlantic enslavement, colonialism, and racism–perceptions that are too often paralyzing and false.  Stephon had two strikes for nonviolent offenses, this meant that he was under the constant surveillance of law enforcement and feared to go to prison for simply being a Black man in America.  Stephon was always concerned about receiving a third strike, which meant that he could spend the duration of his life in prison. Today, the United States makes up about 5% of the world’s population and has 21% of the world’s prisoners. In 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total 6.8 million correctional population.  African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.  Knowing these statistics, being connected to the families impacted by the American practice of criminalization meant that we all shared his concern.  Unfortunately, Stephon’s third strike came when he was murdered for being Black in America.


After Stephona and Mike were murdered for being Black in America, I found myself protesting–something before these incidents I did not know needed to be done.  I was active in demanding that leaders, at every level, do a better job of protecting and respecting our human rights.


Imagine standing on the corner of Lang and West Florissant in St. Louis, Missouri. I was with two friends passing out bottled water to the protestors and people who resided in the community. At one point, while passing out water we were approached by officers who were equipped with militarized weapons approached us demanding that we “return home.” We refused. We were home. The police opened fire, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets without regard for who might be hit or hurt.  


I could hear the cries of children and the screams of adults.


My eyes and nose burned.  My chest was tight, and I could barely breathe. 


At that moment I struggled to understand what was happening.  Really I wanted an explanation as to why we were being attacked in our community.  We were forced into the streets–to demand better–because we were tired of burying our friends–because we understand that Black people do not need to die.  African descendants are responsible for providing the economic foundation upon which our global economy is based and in spite of our sustained and unyielding labor we continue to be disproportionately impacted by discrimination that cuts at the heart of democracy, that weakens the foundation upon which our country was established.  


The experiences I described are experiences that no one should endure. Especially not for being Black in America, but sadly too often individuals are victims of these types of crimes because of racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and discrimination. Failure to address the legacy of colonialism and slavery continues to harm American democracy and remains a barrier to bring communities together. This doesn’t have to be the case. We have the ability to protect the fundamental rights of all people. This is our charge.  This is our responsibility. 


Two things that I would ask all of the delegates to the OSCE to consider as we think about solutions for these seemingly intractable problems are as follows: 


Governments can provide resources to support people who are most likely to be victims of hate crimes in telling their story–in speaking truth to power. In absence of traditional media telling full and complete stories about victims of racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and discrimination, it’s important for us to be supportive in telling our stories. I leveraged a social media platform, Twitter, to make sure people knew what was happening on the ground in real time. I remember standing in spaces where CNN would report that gunshots were being fired, and only seeing fireworks. This matters because people would see these reports and assume that residents, that black people were inciting violence and we were not. Disrupting negative images and stereotypes that are communicated about racial, ethnic, sexual and religious minorities is critical to ending racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and discrimination.


Governments can also provide support, financial support, and technical assistance to activists and protesters to sustain themselves outside of organizations–civil societies or non-profit organizations. If I were fully resourced during the time of the Ferguson Uprising I would have been able to facilitate the exchange of information to people who were looking to be helpful to build community by establishing trust. Provide resources to black men and boys like Stephon and Mike, so they could obtain the skills, credentials, and resources required to thrive not simply survive.


Governments can increase mental health services to address trauma associated with violent racism and racial healing for all Americans.


Too often the lack of resources or social support provided to people most likely to be negatively impacted by racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and the discrimination result in weakened relationships, fractured communities and countries that as a result don’t optimize national economic, and social security. When people are stressed and do not feel connected to one another the conditions for racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and discrimination are ripe. What I now know is that this doesn’t have to be the case. I very much look forward to the testimony of those who are gathered here. I thank you in advance for your time and the consideration of the recommendation I have provided. 

The National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) is a civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and same gender loving (LGBTQ/SGL) people, including people living with HIV/AIDS.