Following the Mar. 15 terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called for a global effort to root out racism and bigotry, according to the BBC.
She said that the background of the terrorist, who was born and raised in Australia and traveled the world, shows that bigotry is an international threat that requires international coordination to overcome.
"What New Zealand experienced here was violence brought against us by someone who grew up and learned their ideology somewhere else,” she said in the interview. “If we want to make sure globally that we are a safe and tolerant and inclusive world we cannot think about this in terms of boundaries."
Since the shooting, Ardern has repeatedly condemned bigotry and she announced a ban on assault rifles on Thursday.
Defeating racism at a global level is another matter altogether — but Ardern could instigate progress.
“I hope she’s serious, because her representatives at the UN could call on both the General Assembly and Security Council to have a special session on the matter,” Gerald Horne, professor of history at the University of Houston who has written numerous books on the history of racism in the US, told Global Citizen. “Experts could be brought on, and an action plan could be developed if she’s serious.”
The United Nations has long campaigned to eliminate racism and xenophobia, and recently adopted a new resolution that outlines a strategy for achieving this outcome. The global organization releases reports on the various forms of xenophobia, invites everyday people to fight racism in their daily lives, and advises governments on policies that promote tolerance and inclusivity.
As the UN acknowledges, defeating racism, wrapped up as it is in nearly every aspect of society, is no easy feat. But there are broad steps that can be taken in the short and long term to get there.
The first step, according to historians who spoke with Global Citizen, is to actually acknowledge the depth of racism in modern life and its historical precedents.
Ardern was right in pointing out how the terror attack in Christchurch reflects the pervasive nature of bigotry, according to Kari Winter, professor of American Studies at the University of Buffalo.
“It’s so clear in New Zealand that the problem is not a local problem,” she said. “This is a terrorist from Australia who’s heavily influenced by a Norwegian terrorist and who also cites people like Donald Trump. We’re not looking at an isolated locality, we’re looking at a global phenomenon that touches on global conditions.”
Racism has deep roots in modern society and it’s up to governments and people to reckon with this history on a regular and ongoing basis.
Horne used the US, where white supremacist violence has surged in recent years, as an example.
“The US was the first apartheid state,” Horne said. “We should not see it as incidental or accidental that Africans were enslaved, that Native American land was taken, that immigrants fresh off the boat from Europe got benefits and there only recently has been a global struggle to change that.
“Until we face the mirror and confess to our own sins, with regard to the ugly history of this country, I don’t think we can move forward,” he added.
Acknowledging this history also means recognizing how it actively shapes the present moment.
All around the world, racial and other inequities take many forms.
Racism on a structural level means that marginalized communities are more likely to face poverty, environmental pollution, violence at the hands of the state, and discrimination in health care, the workplace, and education.
On an interpersonal level, racism shows up all across social media and in the daily real-life interactions people have. The terrorist who killed at least 50 people in New Zealand was heavily influenced by white supremacist subcultures online, according to the New York Times.
YouTube, in particular, has become a clearinghouse for white supremacist and other bigoted views, and demands for the social media channel to more effectively regulate hate speech have increased recently. Other social platforms such as Facebook have been shown to fuel real-world violence, including the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, and Twitter is often accused of being slow to remove hateful language.
While social media often creates opportunities for hate, it can also be used to challenge racism by calling out overt acts of bigotry and highlighting instances of discrimination.
That’s a step in the right direction, according to experts. Contending with racism means seeing the connection between everyday instances of discrimination and racist rhetoric and larger acts of violence. In New Zealand, for example, Muslims are routinely subjected to discrimination and racist insults.
But fully tackling racism requires legislative action at all levels of government in all countries, according to Horne.
The United Nations calls for numerous policy changes to combat racism. Oftentimes, these suggestions involve improving the material conditions of people living in poverty — improving access to education, health care, and nutrition, for example. They also include much stronger protections for marginalized groups and greater law enforcement against hate crimes.
In the US, for example, Horne said that a congressional hearing could be opened up to investigate the infiltration of white supremacists into police departments and the military. Better oversight of law enforcement, meanwhile, could end the seeming impunity of officers accused of killing unarmed black men, he said.
Throughout the US, progressive district attorneys have been working to end racial inequities in the criminal justice system.
Although racism takes different forms in every country, bigotry everywhere shares key features. As a result, it’s important for countries to draw lessons from each other.
The fight against apartheid in South Africa, for instance, showed how a system of extreme racial hierarchy and state-sanctioned violence can end when countries around the world come together to demand change.
Racism is still pervasive in South Africa, but a pernicious system was dismantled.
Today, countries need to once again step up and declare that white supremacy and xenophobia have no place in modern society, experts say. But this time, according to Horne, they have to mean it.
“I don’t think we have a deficit in ideas," Horne said. "The problem is a lack of political will and political strategy to unflinchingly face the ugly reality."