Civil Society

Explainer: What is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination?

International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, on 21 March, is a chance to fight it.

International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, on 21 March, is a chance to fight it. Image: Unsplash/Markus Spiske

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • More than 60 years after the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa, racism remains a global scourge.
  • International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, on 21 March, is a chance to fight it.
  • Everyone has a part to play by speaking up against hatred and intolerance, says the UN.
  • As well as the human cost, US businesses lost a total of $172 billion between 2016 and 2021 due to racism, a World Economic Forum study reveals.
  • A standardized self-assessment tool should be instigated to help address racial equity gaps in the workplace, it says.

21 March, 1960 is a date that lives in infamy. It’s the day when a peaceful anti-apartheid rally in the South African township of Sharpeville turned into a massacre when police opened fire on protesters, killing 69 people.

That date, 21 March, is marked as the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and events around the world take place to remind everyone of the need to rid our societies of racial hatred.

Race laws in South Africa were repealed in June 1991, but racism remains endemic globally. “Still, in all regions, too many individuals, communities and societies suffer from the injustice and stigma that racism brings,” the UN says.

Hate speech - much of it racist - is rising around the world, the UN says. Hate speech online has been linked to a global increase in violence toward minorities, including mass shootings, lynchings and ethnic cleansing, according to the US Council on Foreign Relations.

International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: In June 2020, almost one in five Americans named race relations as the biggest problem facing the US.
International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: In June 2020, almost one in five Americans named race relations as the biggest problem facing the US. Image: Statista

International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: Discrimination must be fought by everyone

“Hatred is a danger to everyone – and so fighting it must be a job for everyone,” said UN Secretary-General, António Guterres. Simply deploring racism is not enough, the UN says. Individuals must ensure their voices are raised against it.

It should be a priority to ensure that those who face discrimination are represented at all levels of decision-making to prevent and combat racial discrimination, the UN says.

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – also known as End Racism Day – is an opportunity to “recognize the contribution of individuals and organizations that stand up against racial discrimination and the challenges they face”.

  • Education: teaching the history of racism, slavery, and colonialism, and learning about human rights tools to fight against oppression, racism and discrimination.
  • Actions speak as loud as words: Speaking out against intolerance often leads to concrete actions to stop it.
  • We all are agents of change: We all have the power to tackle racism. What is needed is courage and the will to act.
International day for the elimination of racial discrimination.
Everyone has a part to play in fighting racism, says the United Nations, in the context of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, celebrated every March 21.. Image: Peace Research Institute Oslo

The economic cost of racism

As well as the appalling human suffering caused by racism, there is an economic cost, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2023 whitepaper, Prioritising Racial and Ethnic Equity in Business.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

US businesses lost a total of $172 billion between 2016 and 2021 due to staff turnover caused by unfair treatment of minority employees, the Forum says, adding that ensuring adequate representation of ethnic and racial diversity could lead to growth in GDP.

A UK government-sponsored study found the economy was missing out on $29 billion (£24 billion) due to the lack of participation and progression of Black and minority-background people in the workforce – equivalent to 1.3% of the nation’s GDP.

So what can be done? The Forum’s whitepaper says traditional diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies don’t go far enough, focusing mainly on equality of opportunity. They need to be broader, tackling “racial and ethnic equity gaps” across organizations.

The challenges of monitoring racial data

The whitepaper says measures need to include activities like research and development, marketing and supply chains. Their effectiveness should be more actively monitored through accountability mechanisms, such as organizational self-assessments.

But measuring the effectiveness of efforts to end racial disparities is impossible without accurate data. The whitepaper says that 20 of the 38 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), do not collect race or ethnicity data.

That figure includes two-thirds of EU countries which ban the collection of such data because of how it was misused during the Second World War, the whitepaper says. But alternatives such as a person’s socioeconomic background do not always “adequately capture the experience of racialized and ethnic groups … particularly when seeking employment,” it adds.

“At the company level, data on race and ethnicity is a crucial and foundational component to taking stock of progress on closing racial and ethnic equity gaps.” The whitepaper recommends the introduction of “a standardized self-assessment tool” to help address racial equity gaps in the workplace.

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