When one Jewish person is attacked because of his identity, the entire Jewish community feels assaulted. They do not forget the holocaust. People of African origins have suffered far more than any ethnic or social group since the beginning of time. But they are yet to develop their version of “never again” frame of mind. They have the most potent weapon to fight racial injustice: moral capital.
This is the third and last part of a three-series article that began with “I can no longer remain silent about racism in the World Bank.”
Some years ago, the Bank was considering short-listed candidates for a fairly high management position for the Middle East and North America (MENA) region. Among the top five candidates was a Jewish woman. After a long discussion to rank the five top candidates based on their credentials and interviews, one of the managers mentioned casually that the woman candidate “is Jewish and I wonder how she may be received in an Arab region”.
The chair of the panel reacted rather quickly saying, “We can’t take religion or ethnicity into consideration. I don’t think you want to get our heads chopped by the Board and the President.”
That is what “zero tolerance for discrimination” means. Indeed, the President and the Board would have chopped our heads off had we ranked the Jewish candidate lower based on her religion or place of origin.
The only unsaid issue was that everyone in the room knew that well qualified African candidates are pushed down the ranking routinely as a matter of long standing policy because the Bank believes that they will not be well received in East Asia, in Latin America, in Eastern Europe…
One of the former senior vice presidents was not shy to admit this policy in 2009 in a video message. Speaking of African managers, the former sr. vice president stated: “The first thing was to promote them in the Africa region. The second hurdle is that having seen them do well in Africa to convince other regions to accept them..."
The question is why do Board members and World Bank presidents treat different social groups differently?
Let us take two cases of extremes. People of Jewish and African heritages.
Jewish people have absolutely zero tolerance for antisemitism. Not a bit. Not for a nanosecond. The primary reason is not because they are economically and politically powerful. Their strength is in their resolve and tenacity when it comes fighting any form of antisemitism. They mean what they say and say what they mean when they say “never again!”
When one Jewish person is attacked because of his identity, the entire Jewish community feels assaulted. They are students of history. They do not forget the holocaust. Any form of bigotry must be nipped in the bud. They get up in arms against the slightest sign of anti-Semitism. The World Bank administration and the Board of Directors are well aware of it.
Take Africans on the other hand. People of African origins have suffered far more than any ethnic or social group since the beginning of time. Centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, Apartheid, just to name a few.
When it comes to slavery, the most widely quoted figure is the 10.5 million slaves who made it to the Americas. The nearly 5 million who perished during the slave raids in Africa and over the seas on their way to America are often forgotten.
According to a recent study by the Equal Justice Initiative, nearly 4000 Blacks were lynched by a mob and hanged from a tree in the US, years after the 13th amendment of the US Constitution abolished slavery.
Africans are yet to develop their version of “never again” frame of mind. They have the most potent weapon to fight racial injustice: moral capital.
I believe in 2012 or early 2013, Reverend Jesse Jackson wrote a letter to numerous African dignitaries, respected former presidents, African Nobel Prize winners, and international statesmen and women. The letters, in which he asked them to co-sign a petition with him to condemn institutional racism in the World Bank and demand change, was widely circulated by the African community in the World Bank.
The World Bank leadership was worried and the damage control unit (yes there is one) was in full alert. But nothing came out of it. When Reverend Jackson sent his petition to the World Bank, it was signed by nine African American civil rights organizations. Not a single one from Africa.
The Bank understands that Africans tolerate racial injustice. Its institutional racism is equationed on the assumption that Africans have infinite tolerance for racial injustice.
* The author is a former member of the World Bank’s Senior Management Team and served on more than one of the Bank’s working groups on racial discrimination.