Embracing dignity as the path away from racism
Anna Spain Bradley, human rights and international legal scholar and vice chancellor for equity, diveristy and inclusion at UCLA. (Photo courtesy of VC Spain Bradley.)

Embracing dignity as the path away from racism

Anna Spain Bradley, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion, spoke on “Global Racism and the Role of Education” at the virtual UCLA Global Conversation on November 18. Her remarks affirmed that embracing and enacting human dignity — the core principle of human rights — offers a powerful antidote to racism.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, December 1, 2020 — The year 2020 re-awakened the United States to the old problem of racism, particularly after the murder of George Floyd, Jr., said Anna Spain Bradley at the virtual UCLA Global Conversation on November 18. Moderated by Vice Provost for International Studies and Global Engagement Cindy Fan, her presentation was the signature event of International Education Week 2020 at UCLA. (See the full video here.)

“Black Lives Matter became a rallying cry for change,” she said. “And part of that change is to combat racism in all of its forms, which continues to harm millions of people in the world today, as it has for so long throughout human history.

“Racism is a tool of oppression that has global reach,” she observed. “It works by dehumanizing individuals and communities, not only by denying their inherent equality and dignity, but doing so on the basis of a constructed category of race, designed for the very purpose of separating humans into a hierarchy, meant to permanently elevate some and suppress many.”

Spain Bradley specified that she spoke in her personal capacity — not as UCLA vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) — about her “experiences as a legal scholar and UN human rights advocate, and as a human being who has experienced racism.” Specifically, she shared her views on racism as a global phenomenon and insights from her research for her book, “Global Racism” (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

Spain Bradley joined UCLA as EDI vice chancellor in September 2020. An expert in human rights and international law, she approaches racism within a human rights framework. From 2017 to 2020, she was assistant vice provost for faculty development and diversity at the University of Colorado, where she was also a professor of law from 2009 to 2020. Prior to joining the faculty of University of Colorado, she served as deputy director of the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations and a lecturer at the UCLA School of Law.

Among her many career experiences, Spain Bradley recently served as a legal expert to the United Nations Ad Hoc Committee of the Human Rights Council on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards. She previously served as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations Compensation Commission in Geneva and an attorney-adviser at the U.S. Department of State.

Racism reinforced by hierarchies of power

Citing “Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism” (1992) by critical race theorist and legal scholar Derek Bell (1930–2011), Spain Bradley argued that examining and deconstructing the power imbalances and hierarchies that reinforce the social construct of race were part of the larger work of confronting global racism.

“Whether we understand it as superiority, supremacy or other forms, the idea that people want to exist along a hierarchy, and that governments continue to reinforce such hierarchies, is part of the problem that understanding racism as a global phenomenon calls upon us to address,” she said.

While doing human rights work in Zambia, Spain-Bradley explained that she encountered a form of racism based not on a hierarchy of race, but on insider-outsider status. At the time, people migrating into Zambia from different countries were being imprisoned because they lacked passports and/or proper documentation, which constituted a human rights violation.

Whether racism concerns one race acting against another, as in the U.S. context, or, an “insider” group acting against “outsiders,” as in the Zambian context, “both of these things have a core thing in common,” she said. “They put people on a hierarchy: some people are at the top and others are at the bottom. I think unpacking the true nature and insidious harm of racism necessarily involves unpacking these hierarchies.”

The conversation in which we need to be engaged, she asserted, must confront such questions as: “Who gets to set up the structures? Why were the structures set up in the way that they were? Who are they designed to help? Who are they designed to keep on the bottom of the social hierarchy? How do we understand those frames and start to dismantle them, [as] they are abhorrent to our common goals of equality, equity, dignity and more?”

Anna Spain Bradley prior to the virtual UCLA Global Conversation (left) and during online preparation for the event (right).
(Photo courtesy of Vice Chancellor Spain Bradley.)

Education’s role in addressing racism

In the speaker’s view, education plays a number of roles in the struggle against racism, but is insufficient alone to combat its challenges. First and foremost, she said, education can provide the proper framing for the history of racism and previous generations’ struggles with its challenges. Education is also crucial for “tackling racism explicitly and with an openness to investigating all of its manifestations,” including questioning the education platform from which educators work, the built-in assumptions of academic disciplines and the perspectives reflected in the key works taught by those disciplines.

Finally, she commented, education must pose hard questions about power imbalances, in and out of the classroom. “Who has power? What’s the source of the power? Does balancing power help us with our education mission?” she asked.

There is no one educational model for educating youth about racism and empowering them to act against it, said Spain Bradley. Instead, she emphasized the foundational need for respect for individuals. “There has to be a respect for each other’s identifies and an understanding, an acceptance, of those identities, for an optimal educational environment to ensue,” she commented.

Specifically, she called for active educational models that are experiential in nature and whose impact on people’s behavior can be empirically evaluated. “We have to do things with others — others who offer different identities than we ourselves bring. Those experiences change our minds about biases that we know about and those that remain implicit,” she commented.

Racism: A global problem without an accepted global definition

The election of 2016 was a turning point for her personally, said Spain Bradley; it convinced her of her responsibility to engage racism as a scholar. She described that path as a return to the global conversation about racism that led to the International Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in 1965.

The UN convention was negotiated during the height of the civil rights movement in the U.S. and at a moment when many African nations claimed their independence from colonial rule, explained Spain Bradley. Although the negotiations that produced the ICERD involved many difficult conversations about the meaning of racism, the convention eventually focused on prohibiting racial discrimination on the basis of race, color or ethnicity — without clarifying what was meant by those terms, she noted.

“Representatives from many countries asserted that racial discrimination was either not present in their country, or did not apply to their minorities or indigenous peoples,” continued Spain Bradley. “Ultimately… the world only defined racial discrimination specifically in two forms: apartheid and segregation.”

Today, she observed, the language being used to describe the struggles of racial justice in the U.S. and around the world is not just “racial discrimination,” as specified in the ICERD, but also “racism.”

“[The conversation] is not just about what is being done, it’s about who is doing it and why,” she said. “It’s about understanding the health impacts that racism causes to current and future generations. It’s about returning to that global conversation and reinvigorating a global commitment to addressing and eliminating racism.”

As part of that work, Spain Bradley stressed the core principle underlying all universal human rights: people inherently deserve to be treated with dignity. “One of the definitions of dignity is seeing value in the other as being neither better nor worse than yourself, even when you have different roles,” she said. “Where we go wrong is when my being important requires somebody else to not be important.”

“If all of us are equal in dignity and rights,” she added, “we cannot shy away from the hard and often uncomfortable work of addressing racism by its name in education and beyond.

“To me, the organizing principle is in finding places that we can embrace dignity and enact dignity in our behavior in the world, because where there’s dignity, we get away from discrimination, racism and other harms.”

Cindy Fan listening to Anna Spain Bradley's virtual presentation. (Photo courtesy of Vice Provost Fan.)

Confronting the here and now

Cindy Fan launched an absorbing question-and-answer session by asking if human beings were capable of doing away with hierarchy. “Even if we find that in today’s modern complex global world, there’s a place and a value for hierarchy [in terms of] organizing people,” responded Spain Bradley, “then we have to reconsider what the hierarchies are based on and who gets to decide that.

“I think this is the way forward: to remove a lot of the old assumptions about why hierarchies were valuable and take way the idea that they can’t be questioned, when they very much should be,” she added.

Asked about UCLA, Spain Bradley said, “What strikes me about UCLA — and one of the reasons I was so delighted to return — is that when you have diversity in the way that UCLA does, diversity in all of its forms and a global reach, you have an incredible opportunity to make the aims of inclusion and equity and dignity possible.

“But it’s hard, because instead of dealing with people who might identify according to seven different things, you're dealing with people who identify in 80 different ways,” she added. “That makes it both interesting and complex, but it’s work that’s worth engaging in and work that I think the campus is eager to engage in, and has been for a long time.”

Responding to a question about the lack of public support for affirmative action, she said, “If we didn’t have a problem of racism in the first place, we wouldn’t have needed affirmative action. For those people who say, oh well, we don’t need affirmative action in 2020, we need to engage that more deeply.”

Racism remains pervasive throughout the United States, observed Spain Bradley. “There’s racism that occurs in law, and in our economic spaces — socially, culturally, politically — that has not gone away.

“The need to make sure that institutions of higher learning can afford everyone equal opportunity, which is a part of what we guarantee under the Constitution, requires interventions,” she continued. “[S]o if it’s not going to be affirmative action, as so named and defined, what might those interventions be?” she asked.

Asked about anti-racist education in basic education (elementary through high school), the speaker cautioned, “We have to always be critical of our well-intentioned efforts to look beyond intent to actual effect, to consider… who has power in the room? Who’s not part of the conversation? Who’s not a part of designing and structuring the conversation?”

“For many people,” she commented, “it is a privilege to learn about racism and other forms of discrimination through books, and not in the world.” Unraveling racism requires more evidence about what actually changes people’s behavior, she asserted. “What changes structures, what changes stories and families, and norms and values, beyond merely telling people about the history?” she asked.