Delegates from several Bay Area organizations say they are dismayed by
the U.S. decision to withdraw from the U.N. World Conference Against Racism in
Durban, South Africa, but they remain undaunted.
"What is most disappointing is that the U.S. government refused to
participate based on the very principles that (America) was built on, and that
is freedom of expression," said Krishanti Dharmaraj, executive director of the
Women's Institute for Leadership Development in San Francisco, speaking from
the Durban apartment where she and 35 other group delegates are staying.
"What the U.S. government refused to acknowledge is that people have the
right to disagree . . . and instead it is just giving up," Dharmaraj said.
"And that is disappointing as a U.S. citizen."
Few were surprised by the decision, given the government's repeated
warnings in the weeks leading up to the event, said Steve Williams, executive
director of San Francisco's People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER),
which sent two representatives.
"In some sense, the U.S. leaving is creating space for people to have a
substantive discussion about what racism looks like, instead of trying to
fight with them about language," Williams said from his San Francisco office.
"For the folks going from POWER, our objective was to make connections and
link up with other activists across the globe -- and the U.S. pulling out
doesn't have too much of an impact on that."
Wilson Riles, San Francisco regional director of the American Friends
Service Committee, called the decision "shameful and immature," adding that
many delegates -- including about 40 from his organization -- suspect the
government is trying to deflect attention from its own race problems.
"I think a lot of the talk about Israel is camouflage for the government
not wanting to talk about reparations for slavery," said Riles.
For most, however, no amount of high-level political maneuvering can cast a
pall over the personal experience of being there.
"They are excited to meet all kinds of different people from around the
world who are dealing with some of the similar issues that women of color are
dealing with here," said Miriam Louie of the Women of Color Resource Center in
Berkeley, referring to the two dozen delegates the group sent to Durban.
Despite some frustration over the U.S.-Israeli withdrawal, Dharmaraj said
most attendees are focused on the fight against racism.
"We are keeping in mind that this is a struggle, and the struggle will
continue," she said yesterday. "Durban is only one stop in that journey, and
our spirits are high to continue that work, and the U.S. government will not
stop the work happening."
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle