Hundreds of groups are researching the potential damages of the FTAA on issues like labour, environment, human rights, health, education, etc. But most of the (predominantly white) social democratic "citizens' groups" (by the way, who is included and excluded in the idea of "citizens"?), present an interesting, yet limited, analysis of the globalization problem that stops short of admitting the intersections of capitalism, patriarchy and imperialism with white supremacy.

Free trade, racial oppression, and how we can respond

by Pauline Hwang

[The following is adapted from a presentation at the “From Protest to Resistance: a radical look at the FTAA” forum hosted by Anti-Racist Action. Toronto, January 25, 2001.]

I’ve been asked to come here today to talk about the effects on people of colour of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). I think that may be a funny question to ask. A better question is “how could we even talk about the FTAA without talking about how it will especially hurt communities of colour and indigenous communities, both in the South and here in North America?”

It seems inevitable, though mostly unsaid, that the FTAA’s impact will primarily hit the over 500 million people of colour and indigenous peoples in the Americas (particularly women), who generally make up the lowest strata of workers, are conveniently located nearest to environmental hazards and toxic dumpsites, and are the primary target of increasing military, police and government violence. When we talk about privatization of resources, education and health, those who will be hit hardest are those who already face barriers to what is left of the public system.

Hundreds of groups are researching the potential damages of the FTAA on issues like labour, environment, human rights, health, education, etc. But most of the (predominantly white) social democratic “citizens’ groups” (by the way, who is included and excluded in the idea of “citizens”?), present an interesting, yet limited, analysis of the globalization problem that stops short of admitting the intersections of capitalism, patriarchy and imperialism with white supremacy.

These groups complain that free trade deals cause national governments to lose their power and that we ‘citizens’ are thus losing democracy. I suspect that many of you will agree with me when I question that so-called democracy (i.e. casting a vote every four years for one rich white male over another).

What the media and the post-Seattle ‘movement’ are making a fuss over as ‘corporate globalization’ or ‘capitalist globalization’ are the same old imperialist, colonialist and patriarchal and – yes racist – policies that have plagued the planet for centuries. Corporations can’t steal the power from the State when they are all made up of the same brand of elite. Unfortunately, corporations are even less accountable to the people than is the State, and the feeble national “democracy” we had is eroding further.

It is clear that policies like these so-called “free” trade agreements are little more than systemic oppression on the basis of race, class, gender, ability, etc. The FTAA will just be another of the more recent tools to further entrench an oppressive hierarchical pyramid of power, with various ways of dividing those on the bottom and ensuring they stay there. Cheap labour and resource exploitation are still the names of the game.

I don’t need to explain why I could not in ten minutes do more than give a shallow overview of the broad connections between free trade policies and racism in general. But now I’d like to get more concrete and talk a bit about how recent ‘globalization’ may have affected local struggles here in Canada.

Many of you involved in Anti-Racist Action’s direct action campaigns have probably noticed an increase in overtly racist behaviour like neo-Nazism, anti-immigrant activity, and police attacks on youth, people of colour and poor people here in Ontario. I would suggest that these examples of overt racism are just the tip of a growing iceberg of racist attitudes stemming from the effects of capitalist globalization: namely, the polarization between rich and poor countries that stigmatizes immigrants and refugees; and the polarization between rich and poor in the same city which justifies increasing law enforcement to protect the rich.

If crime is the reason for increasing police budgets and power, targeted policing, military spending, and prisons, then someone has got to commit the crimes. This tends to mean poor people and people of colour, especially young black males. Both police and immigration practice racial profiling. The Toronto police force can afford, for example, to have a specially dedicated Asian Crime Investigative Unit to probe would-be refugees and other worthy Asians, and stir up media controversies over the ‘illegal immigration’ crisis where Canada is being drowned in tidal waves of the Asian Invasion. (this doesn’t even touch on the millions of people who, because of their economic situation, could never even consider attempting refugee or immigrant status in Canada.)

This gives the government good excuses to “crack down” on immigration and refugee rules so that they have more reasons to deny people access to our country’s wealth and comfort. “Economic migrants” are seen as “illegal” queue-jumping opportunists who are not suffering real persecution in their globalization-stricken homelands. Those who permit public opposition to the entry of Chinese refugee claimants don’t mention the human rights abuses in China that, when convenient, become part of the national, and even leftist, agendas.

An example of racist policies that benefit from globalization is the federal government’s Live-In Caregiver program which brings in Third World women to be vulnerable, ridiculously-low-paid, domestic workers doing work that ‘real Canadians’ would never want to do. If they behave well over two years, they are given a shot at Canadian residency.

So the FTAA will probably follow the examples of previous free trade deals and provide freedom for capital and investment but not for labour. It’s easier for money to move and harder for people. If it does allow labour mobility it will be restricted to highly-skilled technical workers so that North America can further benefit from the brain drain of the South. It adds to the tragedy of the situation that Canada makes it particularly difficult to have education and training earned in ‘developing countries’ recognized when coming here.

So if the FTAA threatens people of colour, why aren’t people of colour on the forefront of the movement to oppose it?

Well, answer 1 is that they actually ARE, in the South as well as in North America but largely ignored by media and even by some other activists. Answer 2 is that the well-publicized ‘mainstream’ activist ‘movement’ has not yet come to grips with its own racism (and other internal oppressions). That’s where anti-racist activists like us come in (and that’s the main purpose of the Colours of Resistance network that I’m supposed to be representing today). COR’s mandate mentions a need for different roles played by activists of colour and white allies. Rather than attempting to infuse communities of colour with the wisdom of their movements (by recruiting more people of colour and convincing them of the issue’s importance) white activists could focus on breaking down the barriers to inclusion and cooperation between them and organizers of colour.

Some of these barriers may have to do with separate realities: what actions one can afford to take part in: taking into consideration work and family demands, travelling to a protest for an uncertain amount of time, risks of police confrontation, arrest whether or not one can afford legal support, risks to one’s landed status, etc.

Some of the barriers thus have to do with how many diverse forms of direct action we can come up with, how much we can accommodate people of differing needs and risks, and how much we respect and work with other approaches to resistance chosen by communities of colour, that may be more realistic and accessible. It thus may require some reflection on our parts as to what is seen and defined as ‘radical’ — both what issues and what actions. Creative self-definition and building community in the face of oppression is a fairly radical response to fairly radical mainstream racism.

Neocolonialism and capitalism itself are built on the foundations of racism. To oppose them effectively we must be vigilant anti-racists ourselves and, as your poster said, move from “days of action to sustained community-based resistance.” Appreciating the contribution of a wide variety of organizing strategies and protest tactics may help lead to a broad, multiracial and truly threatening movement against global capitalism.

In Montreal, we’re having networking meetings and learning exchanges for community organizers of colour, featuring workshops by the Immigrant Workers Centre and Live-in Caregiver groups at major Teach-ins, working with other People of Colour Caucuses, having thorough anti-oppression and direct action trainings, organizing roving community presentations, and creating popular education days by and for women. Filipino youth are mobilizing and learning revolutionary history to turn their gangs into political organizations.

It’s not as much as we would like but it’s a start to becoming local, global and long-term allies in the struggle against racism, patriarchy, and capitalist oppression.