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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, April 23, 2024

EPIIC Symposium explores race in global politics with State Dept. Rep Desirée Cormier Smith

Keynote speaker Desirée Cormier Smith is pictured.

The Institute for Global Leadership at Tisch College hosted the annual Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship Symposium from March 9–11. Titled “Power and Prejudice: Race and International Relations,” the three-day event hosted several panel discussions on the prevalence of racial issues in global politics. Desirée Cormier Smith, special representative for racial equity and justice in the U.S. Department of State, delivered the keynote address for the symposium.

Before her keynote, Cormier Smith spoke with the Daily about her work, calling it an “incredible honor” to be the first to hold her current position.

“It is a privilege that I don’t take lightly, because it also comes with great responsibility,” she said. “And while I’m honored to be the first, I don’t want to be the last.”

Cormier Smith’s job at the State Department involves engaging with marginalized communities in the United States and around the world.

“The most rewarding part is being able to actually interact with marginalized racial, ethnic and indigenous communities around the world, many of whom have shared that they’ve never interacted with a U.S. government official,” Cormier Smith said. 

Before working in her current role, Cormier Smith served as a senior adviser in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, where she worked to promote racial justice through the U.N.

“Now, I’m doing the same thing but globally,” Cormier Smith said. “A lot of the work that I was able to do during my time in the Bureau of International Organizations, I’m continuing to do in this role.”

Now, Cormier Smith said, her biggest priority is “helping [her] colleagues at the State Department understand what this work is, why it is a national security imperative and then how to meaningfully incorporate it in all that we do.”

The symposium’s first panel, titled “Hidden in Plain Sight: Contending with Race in Global Politics,” featured Robbie Shilliam, professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University; Maribel Morey, executive director of the Miami Institute for Social Sciences; and Rev. Keith Magee, senior fellow in culture and justice at University College of London and a professor of practice in social justice at Newcastle University. The panel was moderated by sophomore Felix Bhattacharya.

Shilliam connected the security dilemma and Black politics by examining the work of John Herz and Ralph Bunche. 

“A reconfiguration of security studies to engage adequately with Black politics will take new institutional configurations that implicate publication for funding, training, teaching, professional networking and public and policy engagement,” Shilliam argued. “Adding race to existing theories and methods will be insufficient.”

Morey examined the Carnegie Corporation and the implications of their philanthropy.

“If our goal with knowledge is now going to shape public policy, are we really challenging a white world order?” Moray asked. “As we imagine our work towards a more sustainable global community, which parts of this history do we want to move on from? How can we redefine useful and authoritative knowledge on race for national, regional and global communities?”

Magee spoke next about deconstructing race over the next five generations by deconstructing religion, social science, medicine and eugenics.

“Rather than to teach being an antiracist, let’s spend the next five generations building something new,” Magee argued. “How do we create something that's not about the past but about the future?” 

Panelists at the EPIIC symposium are pictured. (Courtesy Carolina Hidalgo-McCabe)

On the second day of the symposium, junior Ava Vander Louw spoke with panelists Marcus King, Michal Mlynár, Cheryl Teelucksingh and Diego Osorio about environmental racism and the climate crisis.

Teelucksingh, chair of the sociology department at Toronto Metropolitan University, began the discussion by speaking about her work on the migration of climate refugees from Western Africa to Canada.  

“West Africa, and specifically Nigeria, which is the area that I’ve been interested in, is dealing with depleted soil conditions and deforestation due to the reduced rainfall in the context of ethnic tensions,” Teelucksingh said. “As a result of that, … the majority of the African immigrants coming to Canada right now are of Nigerian descent since 2016.” 

Next, King, professor of the practice in environment and international affairs at Georgetown University, spoke about ecological apartheid and the Basel Convention. King explained that the treaty prohibits the dumping of toxic waste worldwide, but many countries still partake in the dangerous practice.

 “Ecological colonialism is when northern countries extend their ecological footprint into the global south,” King said. “Of course, this can cause environmental insecurity and lack of resilience. So therefore, the disproportionate impacts of climate change on these countries is an example. It’s not characterized by the direct extraction of resources, like historical colonialism, but it is colonialism.”

Mlynár, deputy executive director of United Nations Habitat, spoke about environmental racism committed by governments, using e-waste as an example.

“According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, each year an estimated 94,000 tons of e-waste worth about $95 million … makes its way from Europe and the United States,” Mylnár said. “When this waste arrives in African countries, for example, it is stripped of raw materials mainly by young children working in poisoned landfills.”

Cormier Smith’s keynote speech, delivered on March 10, began by addressing the debate surrounding American history.

“There is ongoing debate about the need to acknowledge the tragic ... parts of our history, including the forced displacement of Native Americans from their lands to a manifest destiny we created in the enslavement of Africans,” Cormier Smith said.  

She then segued into the goals and challenges she is contending with such as environmental justice, xenophobia and systemic racism. She elaborated on the global implications of these issues, which extend from the advancement of inclusive democracy to combat structural inequities to confronting the rising tide of hate — including antisemitism, Islamophobia and the encroachment on civil rights — in different parts of the world. 

“True democracy hinges on the premise that everyone has a say,” Comier Smith said. “Being a champion for freedom also means meeting this new moment of spreading authoritarianism. We must continue to lead with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values, defending universal human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.” 

She also shared the stories and goals that have inspired her to take on this work.

“Maya Angelou once said that none of us can be free until everybody is free,” Comier Smith said. “As a Black American woman who is the descendant of enslaved people, this work is deeply personal to me. We are here because of centuries of people of African descent’s activism and demands for justice and equality. Let us never forget that we stand here on the shoulders of our ancestors.” 

The final day of the symposium began with a discussion about the racialization of international conflict. The panelists comprised Professor Monica Toft, director of the Center for Strategic Studies; Savita Pawnday, executive director of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect; and Andy Knight, professor of international relations at the University of Alberta. Senior Paloma Delgado moderated.

Toft initiated the discussion with a focus on U.S. intervention and the ideology at play behind it. 

“I’m concerned about … this hyper-militarization of U.S. foreign policy,” Toft said. “Once we get involved, we tend to escalate our objectives. It’s not enough to go in and rout out the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Right now, we have to think about … nation building. And it turns out regime change is extraordinarily difficult, and we have really hard-core data and evidence that shows that it's nearly impossible. It has to come indigenously.” 

Pawnday spoke about how prevalent ideologies feed into power imbalances. She also described how the concept of the responsibility to protect aimed to change the approach to intervention by focusing on the causes for such action. 

“It is a savior complex … to go and save these people without seeing that these people also have agency,” Pawnday said. “What we need to think about is in terms of transformation … when there is an intersection between peace and justice. … All of this requires us to acknowledge the crimes of the past, to honor those victims and to try … through legislative processes, through education systems, through all our institutions to make sure that society develops resilience.”  

Knight examined how established narratives in history have contributed to the perception of intervention, shifting the focus from accountability to action without context.

“The Europeans created a global apartheid system where [Black] and brown and Indigenous peoples have been marginalized and treated as less than human,” Knight said. “This civilizational mission was legitimized basically by Western leaders, by philosophers, by capitalists, by churches, by scientists and even some academics who have actually led the charge to create some sort of justification for this inhumanity.” 

The panel highlighted how race has influenced long-established ideas about humanitarian intervention and how it distracts from the original source of conflict in formerly colonized states. 

“Within this entire neoliberal sense of ‘how do we save people in Africa, in Asia,’ the Western countries have completely denied the first ... recorded genocides which were against indigenous populations,” Pawnday said. “The [future] response cannot be security. The response has to be rooted in what the communities want, and how we move forward.”