Combating Racism in Mexico: Law and Education as Tools for Change

Discover the persistence of racism in Mexico despite the scientific fact that human "races" do not exist. Learn about the tools to combat this phenomenon.

Combating Racism in Mexico: Law and Education as Tools for Change
Young Mexican woman. Photo by Francisco De Legarreta C. / Unsplash

Although science proved long ago that human "races" do not exist, racism is a social and cultural phenomenon implanted in the "pores" of societies, which is why we are still fighting against this serious problem, says Olivia Gall, a researcher at UNAM's Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Sciences and Humanities (CEIICH).

The results of the most recent National Survey on Discrimination (ENADIS, 2017) indicate that approximately one in four indigenous people and one in five Afro-descendant people recognize having suffered an act of discrimination in the 12 months before this exercise, and the figure increases among women.

In addition, at the national level, one out of every two indigenous people claims to have been unjustifiably denied medical care, and the same proportion of Afro-descendants stated that they were denied support from social programs.

On the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which is commemorated on March 21, the coordinator of the Interdisciplinary University Seminar on Racism and Xenophobia (SURXE) clarifies that this practice refers to actions that violate the right to equal treatment of those affected.

In other words, for racial discrimination to operate, it is not enough that there are prejudices, stereotypes, ideas, beliefs, or comments, there must be a concrete act that harms the right to equal treatment, by considering someone of an "inferior race", it specifies.

The term racial discrimination or discrimination on the grounds of race implies that it is taken for granted that "races" exist. That's why at SURXE we prefer to say racist discrimination. "Someone is discriminated against because racism exists and not because, objectively, he or she belongs to a race. We would like to change that way of speaking".

Human beings belong to the same species, Homo sapiens. These ideas that human beings are divided into biological groups or "races" that are radically different from each other are completely discarded from academic and scientific seriousness. "Almost nobody defends the existence of 'biological races' anymore, although many racists do, and many people continue to express themselves in those terms".

The expert recalls that, from the 18th century onwards, in disciplines such as anthropology, it was believed that human beings are divided, among other aspects, by biological characteristics that make us radically different from one another, and that all those who share these characteristics are part of the same "race". For example, it is believed that those who have black skin are all of one race, which is called the "black race".

This way of thinking and constructing relationships was powerful; until after World War II, the pseudosciences that referred to the existence of races began to be questioned, but their discourse and the beliefs that supported it had become so deeply implanted in society that it has been difficult to eradicate them.

Now that the genomic sciences have reliably demonstrated that it is not true that human beings are divided by race, one might think that racism should have disappeared by now. This has not been the case and, on the contrary, this system of creating inequalities permeates societies in various ways.

Of course, Gall clarifies, racist discrimination is one of the symptoms of racism; but there are other deeper, more serious, and violent forms in which it manifests itself, such as genocide.

Our country developed its national identity on the basis that Mexicans are mestizos, the product of a biological and cultural mix. "We discovered little by little, and with great difficulty, that within this mestizo identity construction, particular racisms persist".

Afro-Mexicans, for example, were told for two centuries that they did not exist; they were made invisible, and were not considered as one of the veins of Mexican mestizaje; they were always talked about only the indigenous and Spanish roots.

And the original peoples were sent the message that to be fully Mexican they needed to abandon their differentiated identities, ethnicities, customs, and traditions, and "mix". "Mexico is very particular in its way of being racist," says the university professor.

Law is one of the most important tools to fight against this phenomenon. The Federal Law to Prevent and Eliminate Discrimination, enacted in 2003, helps in the fight against racist discrimination but does not include sufficient facilities for civil or administrative sanctions in the event of a complaint or denunciation. Mexico City's legislation has more possibilities in this regard, he believes.

The laws that state that Mexico is a multiethnic and multicultural country recognize diversity. And although this is relevant for the struggles of indigenous and Afro-Mexican peoples to be identified as collective subjects of law, they are not enough to act forcefully against racism.

Another element to combat this phenomenon is education. However, according to a research project conducted from 2018 to 2021 to study the presence of racism and xenophobia in the public primary education system, the team of academics who developed it found that many of the narratives in textbooks and many of the practices in schools located in eight states of the Mexican Republic are permeated by racism.

Racism is a powerful system for creating inequalities, interiorization, and suffering. Therefore, we must be aware of its existence and how it is related to other structural systems of inequality creation: classism, patriarchy, ethnocentrism, and aporophobia (rejection of the poor).

When we see an act of this nature, we must protest in all instances where it is possible. The goal should be a society where we have eradicated not only racism but also the notion of "race" from both our minds and the way we treat others, he emphasizes.

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is celebrated on March 21 each year. On that day in 1960, police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against the apartheid pass law being practiced in Sharpeville, South Africa. In 1966, in commemorating this day, the UN General Assembly urged the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.