A Bleak Partnership: “The U.S.-Colombia Action Plan on Racial and Ethnic Equality”

Racial tensions in the United States are brewing following the controversial trial of George Zimmerman that found him not guilty after he claimed self-defense for fatally shooting a black, unarmed teenager named Trayvon Martin. Ironically, just a month prior on June 12, government officials from the United States and Colombia met for their first plenary session to begin a collaborative effort to address race issues in their own respective countries. In theory, the “Action Plan on Racial and Ethnic Equality” could result in some productive new policies to address discrimination and inequity; however, given the drastically different racial context of each country, the prospect for positive change is dubious at best.

The purpose of the U.S.-Colombia Action Plan is to move “beyond traditional bilateral cooperation to true public-private partnership for advancing equality and combating discrimination,” says Roberta S. Jacobson, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs of the State Department. [1] The program, chartered in 2010, seeks to share successful practices and implement pragmatic solutions to racial inequity in both countries by focusing on the advancement of the technological industry, the growth of educational exchange programs, and the development of minority-owned businesses. The plan hopes to expand the opportunity for international study by increasing the number of students, American and Colombian, who participate in educational exchange programs such as 100 Strong in the Americas, Fulbright Afro-Colombian Leaders, and The Martin Luther King Jr. Fellows ProgramAnother goal is to build upon the Women’s Entrepreneurship in the Americas Program of 2012, which “aims to break down barriers women [of color] face when starting and growing their own businesses.” [2]  The specific initiatives of the “Action Plan” are directly aimed at improving key areas of development that would benefit both countries.

While these goals are admirable, the implementation of “best practices” from one country to another is completely impractical given that race-related issues in the two nations are significantly distinct. The Colombian government is currently in the process of applying affirmative action provisions as it begins to dispel the myth of a racial democracy—the belief that racism and racial discrimination do not exist—within the country.

Another major concern for minorities in Colombia not mirrored within the United States is that of displacement. For decades, Colombian nationals have been forced from the land by international commercial interests and guerilla groups (such as the FARC) that seek to exploit resources and to traffic goods, respectively. [3] Furthermore, Afro-Colombian minority leaders, community organizations, and human rights activists regularly face threats and even assassinations as they mobilize to combat societal injustices. [4]

A survey of hot-button race issues over the last several years in the United States reflects a far different racial atmosphere. Cases like that of Oscar Grant (a black unarmed man killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer who served 11 months of a two year prison sentence) and Marissa Alexander (a black Florida woman sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot during an argument with her abusive husband) demonstrate the greater issues of racial profiling and the inequality of the U.S. justice system. Furthermore, various attempts to restrict the use of racial quotas in college admissions, e.g. Prop 2 and Fisher v. UT Austin (2013), reflect that the paradigm of affirmative action in the United States is shifting in the opposite direction from that of Colombia. While the “Action Plan” has the professed goal of rectifying grave problems, the racial issues faced in each country are far too divergent for this partnership to actually be of mutual benefit.

The creation of the U.S.-Colombia “Action Plan on Racial and Ethnic Equality” is a welcomed acknowledgment that racial inequity is an ongoing issue in the two countries.  However, the goal of reaching feasible solutions for both countries seems imprudent considering their strongly disparate racial contexts. The plan attempts to improve the situation of minorities with specific initiatives without addressing the current pervasive structural oppression in either society. Neither the United States nor Colombia is in the position to advise the other on how to create a truly post-racial society. Therefore, the “Action Plan on Racial and Ethnic Equality” is, at best, a misguided initiative that trivializes the struggles of the oppressed minority groups that the plan seeks to address.

Angela Crumdy, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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[1] “Remarks at the Opening Session of the First Plenary Meeting on the U.S. –Colombia Action Plan on Racial and Ethnic Equality,” U.S. Department of State, accessed June 24, 2013, http://www.state.gov/p/wha/rls/rm/2013/210569.htm

[2] “Remarks at the Opening Session of the First Plenary Meeting on the U.S. –Colombia Action Plan on Racial and Ethnic Equality,” U.S. Department of State, accessed June 24, 2013, http://www.state.gov/p/wha/rls/rm/2013/210569.htm

[3] Arturo Escobar, Territories of Difference. USA: Duke University Press, 2008.

[4] Sebastián Bernal & Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, “Realidad afrocolombiana require más atención de los Estados Unidos,” Pesamiento Afro 3 (2013):  9-10.