Christopher Lowe [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
HAfrica: Thursday, July 21, 2005 3:57 PM
What Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch reports is unconscionable racial/
national discrimination in action, not just nasty racist views,
although those of course should not go uncriticized.
Before I go any further, I would like to stipulate the following: I do
not know the extent to which the United States, of which I am a
citizen, may have comparable policies, though I strongly suppose that
it does have some. My suspicion is that where they exist, they are
exercised under guises related to "security" in "the war on terrorism"
-- I know that for a period there was citizenship-based discrimination
in visa processing, though I am not sure if that remains true, and I
know that changing visa policies have significantly reduced the ability
of students from other countries to study in the U.S., sometimes via
formal exclusions and sometimes via slow paperwork.
Also: The recent attacks in London, evidently committed by U.K.
citizens, show that an approach that discriminates against individuals
on the basis of stereotypes about their home countries is fatuous, if
genuinely concerned with security. The U.S. like any other country
should be subject to criticism by its own nationals and citizens of
other countries alike, and held to the same standards. Nothing I say
subsequently should be misread as reflecting a belief on my part that
the U.S. is either superior or a model regarding the matters discussed.
I am critical of much of the U.S. government's pattern of
international action, welcome criticism of my government from citizens
of other nations, and believe that making such criticism is their right
and in some situations perhaps their duty.
The reported Australian visa discrimination appears to me to raise
issues similar to those posed to professional organizations in the U.S.
in the waning days of "Jim Crow" enforced racial discrimination in the
southeastern states of the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. During the
period of the Civil Rights movement, some scholarly associations began
debating and eventually creating policies not to hold meetings in
venues where some members of the association and colleagues could not
attend on an equal basis. Hotel accommodations were a particular
issue, although I think eventually other forms of discrimination also
entered into the discussions. A version of this issue re-arose several
years ago, when the Organization of American Historians, at
considerable financial costs, broke a contract to hold a meeting at a
particular hotel belonging to a chain which had been credibly accused
of discriminating against black patrons.
To the injustice of unequal treatment, there is in the case of
scholarship on Africa and a considerable number of other fields a
further element of perverse abuse of power, insofar as exclusionary
practices restrict participation of scholars most intimately tied to
the studies in question by ties of nationality, family, history,
culture, residence and so on. Global resource maldistribution already
leads to their underrepresentation in the global population of
scholars. To have exclusionary practices intensify that
underrepresentation at meetings, preventing their voices from being
heard and restricting the full and free exchange of ideas, is grotesque
This situation seems to me to call for organized professional action
from professional organizations in all of our countries if possible.
As a rough idea of kinds of steps to contemplate: To begin with,
statements of condemnation and requests for policy changes to the
Australian government. Consultation with cognate Australian
organizations as to their positions as to their willingness to take
public critical stances and to seek changes in government policies.
Statements of support of Australian colleagues and organizations that
make public criticism and seek policy change. Statements calling upon
reticent organizations to change their stance.
A second level would involve asking organizations or events that rotate
the geographical locations of their meetings globally not to meet in
Australia as long as all scholars are not treated equally in the visa
process and other formal areas affecting ability to participate. I am
not sure how large a category such academic organizations or events
constitute. Please note that this is not a call for "an academic
boycott" of Australia in the sense most often used, or used in the case
of South Africa in the apartheid era, but a call upon organizations to
meet only where all members or participants will be treated equally.
In fact, it might be possible with some creativity to approach this
second level in a way that would involve Australian scholars and their
organizations. Would Australian scholarly bodies would consider
meeting somewhere else regionally that is more open, if there is such a
place? Are New Zealand's policies different? Would Indonesia or
Malaysia be too dangerous? Would Singapore or the Phillipines be
possible? Are those countries' policies different? I don't know
enough about regional airfares etc.
A third level would be for scholarly organizations to draw the
attention of their members to the national policies involved and call
upon them as a matter of individual conscience to consider whether they
should participate or not in events from which some colleagues are
restricted in access. As with any individual boycott action of this
sort, the effect only exists if someone who would have attended draws
attention to the events' sponsors and the government in question of
On the assumption that Australian colleagues by and large either object
to the policies mentioned, or would object if they knew of the
policies, creativity is called for in working with those colleagues to
change the situation and to improve access in substance. E.g. adding a
surcharge on meeting dues to cover discriminatory differences in visa
charges so that participating scholars were acting in solidarity
through sharing the burden of financial discrimination, or creating an
international scholarly fund. There are arguments in principle against
some versions of this, I suppose, but we should not fetishize boycotts,
nor imagine that they give anyone purity in any sense, and there are
arguments in principle as well against some forms of boycotts.
To reiterate, I think some of this may even now be applicable to some
situations in the U.S., or may become applicable in a not too distant
or too farfetched future. Investigation as to the state of affairs in
U.S. policy certainly would be in order, along with consideration of
possible steps to take, including representations to change policy if
it is found to be discriminatory, and consideration of relocating U.S.
organization meetings to Canada or Mexico or the Caribbean if it were
discovered that discriminatory practices were affecting ability of
valued colleagues to participate.
Perhaps others would have comments as to whether policies in other
countries are similar or different?