By Fred van Leeuwen, General Secretary, Education International.

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly-in 1966. It is 21 March, the anniversary of the 1960 attack on a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville, South Africa. Police killed 69 people. To call brutal carnage “racial discrimination” strikes me as a gross understatement. It is like considering torture to be a form of harassment.

However, that may serve as a good point of departure to examine racism, racial discrimination, bigotry and other injustices. Eliminating racial discrimination may not be completely achievable, but progress can and has been made. Eliminating racism is more difficult.

South Africa and the US illustrate that point. Both had institutionalised racism with apartheid and segregation, respectively.

In the United States, legal racial discrimination has been eliminated, but racism and discrimination have not. Changes in the legal system in the US did not eliminate racism in the South or in the North.

In South Africa, apartheid has no longer exists in the law, but there is still racial discrimination. Racism is still alive and well.

In both countries, legal changes constitute monumental progress and have affected attitudes. Some changes, however, are only skin deep.

The roots of racism in both countries have been revived and refreshed by hostility to migrants and refugees. And, some attacks recall Sharpsville. The rebirth of white supremacism in the US and the riots against migrants and refugees in South Africa indicate that progress is neither permanent nor irreversible.

It is astonishing to witness fear reshape the political and social topography. Fear is the most politically potent not where the most migrants are found, but where there are few. It is fear of the unknown, fear of the “other”.  It is the fear of the imagined monster hiding under the bed.
Fear is irrational and toxic. As the 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke said, “No power so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”

In part of the world, the Great Depression of the 1930s, spawned totalitarianism. Fear was the weapon of choice and fear was the blanket that suffocated democracy.

By contrast, the crisis in the United States had the opposite effect. The newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the bleakest days of the crisis, said, “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigour has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

During the Great Depression, the United States had a bumper crop of populists, demagogues, and totalitarians of the Right and the Left, but there was a democratic and emotional alternative combined with political will. It defined America, brought people together, and offered hope.

Reason is not the vaccine against fear. It is only other powerful, but positive emotions that can neutralise fear and give space to reason.

Children, left to their own devices, are emotional. Education can develop those emotions into values that create community rather than scattered isolated individuals, build trust rather than alienation, and enhance humanity rather than stripping it of its value and dignity. 

Many EI member organisations are fighting intolerance, hate, and all forms of bigotry in the classroom to bridge gaps and build understanding. Many are improving and deepening citizen education. They are fostering acceptance, appreciation of differences, and integration.

There are a lot of different ways to view integration. To me, it does not mean that everybody must be the same or in perfect conformity with host nation cultures. Diversity has great value and is worthy of celebration and protection. It enriches and enhances culture. But, it must respect universal human rights. As the Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen put it, "multiculturalism must serve liberty.”

There are a lot of stories about the latest generation of more sensitive, “friendly” robots in the service economy. I sometimes wonder if there will be a convergence between cutting edge technology and some incarnations of education “reform.” Will the robots being programmed to be more like humans come together with humans being programmed to be more like robots?

Education on auto-pilot or driven by algorithms or forcing square pegs into round holes will not combat racial discrimination or build the future. Humanity at its splendid best, can only be developed and inspired by human beings. And, that is, first and foremost, the contribution of highly qualified, dedicated professional teachers.  

Tolerance, inclusion, acceptance, curiosity, openness and respect for others cannot be imposed or force fed.  It will, rather, be part of and contribute to the adventure and excitement of learning.
Good education shines light in dark places and shapes more complete, well-rounded young people. So equipped, they may even put older people on their best behaviour and, together, build more decent societies where all can live their lives as successes, not failures.