International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

mourners surround a long line of coffins
Twenty-five years to the day after the infamous Sharpeville Massacre, which saw 69 people killed, police opened fire on a crowd of people on their way to attend a funeral in Langa. At least 20 people were killed. (Photo: United Nations/CC BY-NC-ND)

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed every March 21 to bring the international community together as a collective voice in the fight to eliminate all forms of racism and racial discrimination.

On March 21, 1960, a crowd of about 5,000 black South Africans joined together outside a police station in Sharpeville to peacefully protest South Africa’s apartheid “pass laws,” which restricted the movement of people of color in white areas and required all indigenous Africans over the age of 16 to carry a passbook everywhere they went. The initial police presence was fewer than 20 officers but soon swelled to nearly 150 officers armed with rifles and submachine guns. The police force opened fire against the protesters, killing 69 deaths and injuring 180.

After the shooting, witnesses watched how the policemen planted evidence on the dead bodies to prove this gathering wasn’t a “peaceful protest.” They placed stones and knives in the hands of these people, so they looked more violent. As soon as the news reached Cape Town, a group of 1,000 to 5,000 people protested in the township of Langa. Police there killed two protesters.

This horrendous event, now known as the Sharpeville Massacre, shocked the world. In 1979, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a program of activities to be undertaken during the second half of the Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination. On that occasion, the General Assembly decided that a week of solidarity with the peoples struggling against racism and racial discrimination, beginning on March 21, would be organized annually in all its member countries.

Since then, South Africa ended its apartheid system. In several countries, racist laws and practices have been abolished. The UN has built an international framework for ending racial discrimination and racism, which is guided by the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

While the Sharpeville massacre happened more than 60 years ago, racism and racial discrimination are not things of the past. Unfortunately, this is an epidemic, ranging from microaggressions to encountering horrific acts of violence, damaging the lives of people of color. Recently, on May 25, 2020, the world was deeply in pain from the murder of the American George Floyd. It was and still is a time of reflection to learn about the harsh realities for people of color and determine how we can all do our part in ending all forms of racial discrimination.

The theme for the 2022 International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (IDERD)is focusing on “Voices for Action Against Racism.” This theme draws inspiration on the High Commissioner’s report on racial justice and the Agenda Towards Transformative Change for Racial Justice and Equality. It will emphasize the importance of strengthening meaningful and safe public participation to prevent and combat racism. This simple message can be a powerful vehicle to encourage people everywhere to strengthen and consolidate their voices against racism.

The day continues to be commemorated globally to acknowledge the work of those who have fought, and are fighting, to eliminate racial discrimination. Follow the hashtag #IDERD on social media to share the message and find ways to work together to fight against racism and racial discrimination.

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Zane Landin

Zane Landin is an undergraduate student at Cal Poly Pomina in California studying Communication with an emphasis in Public Relations. He is currently Interning at SAGE Publishing as a Corporate Communications Intern. He is passionate about storytelling, DEIA and mental health/disability justice.

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