In recent months, some Latin American media have spread news about acts of discrimination and violence committed by State institutions against individuals and communities of indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants, in procedures related to managing the ongoing pandemic.
Some of these report cases of violence done by security forces, including assassinations. Others relate to incidents of discrimination by health services personnel, which constitute, additionally, forms of institutional violence. These news have been illustrated with shocking photographs and/or audiovisual material, which note signs of physical violence visible on their bodies, the humble appearance of their homes, or the sanitary conditions of their settlements.
The pandemic has deepened inequalities and social injustice worldwide. The aforementioned images provide evidence of visible cases of racism in the context of the pandemic. Will these be the only ways in which the articulation between racism and pandemic affects the lives of these peoples?
Could it be that they are only visible expressions of more complex circumstances? Are they not just the tip of the iceberg?
The problem is more complex, as racial discrimination is only one of the forms, the most visible one, in which racism affects life and aggravates the consequences of the pandemic for these communities.
Racism is constitutive of our societies
Racism is constitutive of the world in which we live, and is still ongoing in all societies on the globe. In Latin America, problems regarding racism do not only affect indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. However, in both cases, racism has existed for centuries and -although transformed- they still remain. Furthermore, they go apparently unnoticed by the majority of the population, or, in any case, the vast majority is not moved by them.
Racism is an ideology according to which human beings would be classifiable into races, some of which are supposedly superior to others, which are considered morally and intellectually inferior to the former. This ideology supported the colonial deployment led by some European monarchies and groups of economic and religious power that subjugated not only peoples from other continents but also from Europe.
The American Republican States, far from putting an end to this ideology, were constituted from it, and reproduced it through their institutions and policies. For instance, to finish with the alleged "barbarism" and ensure the advancement of the "civilization", several governments led the military advance on the indigenous peoples’ territories and distributed their lands among the power groups of which they were part. Survivors were prohibited from speaking their languages, practicing their forms of spirituality, and sustaining their knowledge, food, and health systems. The same happened with Afro-descendant communities, who were also banned from keeping their histories, languages and ways of life.
Institutions and public policies reproduce racism
Although practices of territorial dispossession continue to affect indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, states have long used other means to continue their "civilizing" mission.
For instance, they employ economic and social policies supposedly aimed at ensuring "progress" and "pulling back" these peoples, who continue to seek to live in harmony with what the States call "environment" and for whose "preservation" only in 1970s have begun to worry. Strikingly, these policies often end up eroding these ways of life and pushing these populations to migrate to the cities and seek new livelihoods.
Additionally, various policies and institutions continue to be instruments of the reproduction of this ideology and of its naturalization, for example, through the folklorization of these peoples’ rites and musical expressions. Educational policies and institutions also continue to contribute to the reproduction and naturalization of racism, for example, through forcing the learning of the Spanish language at the indigenous peoples, or the training of a range of professionals educated in ignorance or contempt towards their knowledge systems.
Health policies and institutions, such as research and personnel training, also do the same; for instance, they delegitimize the knowledge and practices of these peoples regarding the management and improvement of plant species, their nutritional value and their therapeutic applications.
The multiple forms of racism and its naturalization
Racism is so naturalized that it is largely unconscious, to the point that the application of this concept is usually limited to events that occur in the United States or Europe, or, if at all in our environment, limiting it to explicit actions of racial discrimination, and among these, only those that are highly visible or violent. For example, racism is not usually perceived in some deeply rooted verbal expressions that have been recorded in the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy.
The naturalization of racism means that it is not associated with the fact that in our countries indigenous and Afro-descendant people and communities do not have an equitable access to health services. Its naturalization also explains why, despite the fact that these inequities cause the death of many children and adults, most of the population does not worry about it.
The naturalization of racism also explains why it is not associated with the fact that these communities are displaced from their ancestral territories to favor the businesses of agricultural and mining corporations, or companies promoting tourism developments; as well as that the majority of the population is not outraged at this, and might even consider it necessary for the “common good”.
Likewise, this naturalization explains why the majority of the population is not outraged when they see that these communities fail to ensure that their claims are duly addressed by "the Justice", or when, in the face of protests from these communities, the public authorities send in the security forces to "reestablish order", frequently leading to abuse, torture, and even murder.
Pandemic, racism and human rights
The problems described here and many others documented in the aforementioned publications allow us to appreciate how centuries of racism have shaped the conditions in which the communities of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples live their lives. It is due to these conditions that these groups are especially affected by the ongoing pandemic.
It is important to bear in mind the genesis and reproduction of these problems so as not to fall into the fallacy that they are "vulnerable populations" that should be "helped" and that they would be "a burden on society". These are populations that have been and continue to be vulnerabilized, that is, forcibly placed in situations of vulnerability.
The analysis of our societies’ history, constituted from the territorial dispossession of indigenous peoples as well as their exploitation and that of contingents of people brought from Africa in conditions of slavery, leads to the conclusion that there is a historical debt and that what is ethically appropriate is not to offer them "help", but to ensure reparatory actions.
However, we currently find that the human rights of these peoples are not fully guaranteed. Worse still, in many cases, their rights are violated by States or by companies and landowners, whose abuses are not sanctioned or repaired. It is not a matter of “helping” these “vulnerable groups”, but rather that States ensure their human rights, that they comply with the corresponding national Constitutions and laws, as well as with the obligations stipulated in the international legal instruments that they have signed.
It is because these populations have been stripped of the territories that guaranteed the reproduction of their ways of life, that today they live in deplorable sanitary conditions, crowded into precarious settlements on the outskirts of cities.
It is these conditions, as a consequence of centuries of racism and the violation of their human rights, that expose these communities in a more dramatic way to the ongoing pandemic. This panorama is aggravated by situations of discrimination and institutional violence such as those reported and illustrated by the media.
The mistreatment, or culturally inappropriate treatment, that people from these towns frequently receive when health personnel visit their communities, exacerbates the ongoing circumstances. Sometimes, it even leads to a separation of the institutions.
Additionally, there are intercultural communication problems, health personnel and other officials know little about the life of these peoples and the ways in which their communities organize, which continue to exist in their new urban environment. On the other hand, it is often thought that translating messages about preventive measures is enough, yet differences are not only linguistic but also social and cultural. Spokespersons for indigenous organizations have insisted that informational messages and materials should be elaborated from the respective cultures and contexts. "Washing your hands" is a chimera when you do not count on running water, "staying at home" is a madness when you live in an overcrowded peri-urban settlement, and strictly unnecessary when you live in the mountains.
Racist societies have made a good part of their population to be deeply ignorant about the histories and cultures of these peoples. This ignorance also affects the training of the majority of professionals and officials who, in the context of the pandemic, must deal with them. It is necessary to develop appropriate responses to both cultural differences and structural conditions that affect indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. For this, it is necessary to ensure their free and informed participation, guaranteeing full respect of their rights and cultures.
Racism affects people and communities of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples in multiple ways, not only through situations of discrimination. It is also expressed in systematic violations of their rights to have equitable access to drinking water, health services, education and justice. In addition, and very importantly, racism is also expressed in that, in the face of these violence and inequities, other social sectors do not react to it.
Why do we live these circumstances as if they were normal? Because they have been going on for centuries. Because racism is constitutive of the societies of which we are part. Because it not only permeates public policies and institutions, but also our own subjectivities.
Now that these news and images have shown us that tip of the iceberg, it is appropriate to remember the words of Angela Davis: «In a racist society it is not enough to be a non-racist, it is necessary to be anti-racist».
Daniel Mato is Head Investigator of the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) and Director of the UNESCO Chair in Higher Education and Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples in Latin America, National University of Tres de Febrero (UNTREF).