Racial Discrimination and Lack of Empowerment

The Afro-Colombian Case

By: Leonardo Reales[1]


“There was a time, sometime ago, a wizard, who created a magic spell and got rid of racism... a time later, the same wizard created

another magic spell and got rid of extreme poverty... and finally,

when this good wizard went to create a last magic spell to get rid of

discrimination... A politician came, created a law, and got rid of the wizard...”[2]


Word Version


Introduction: My Personal Experience…


In 1993 I was the student with the darkest skin color at the University of the Andes, the most prestigious and expensive University of Colombia. I was the only Afro-indigenous person out of almost ten thousand students… I remember that other students would usually say to me: “You are the only negro here… so you have to be proud of that”…


I remember that, in 1992, I was one of three Afro-Colombians of a company of 300 soldiers of the Presidential Battalion, the elite Battalion of the Colombian Armed Forces. I remember, as if it were today, how we were discriminated against just by our skin color, and not only by our commanders but also by our colleagues. It’s important to note that there are no Afro-Colombian generals or Admirals in the Armed Forces, but it’s easy to see that most of the soldiers who are fighting in the armed conflict are Afro-Colombians.


I also remember that one day someone asked me about how many African nations came to America during slavery, and I realized that I didn’t know the name of ten African countries, maybe because the curriculum for basic and secondary education has never included a class on African History in 200 years of Republican History. Perhaps, this issue would be acceptable if the Afro-Colombian people didn’t exist, but there are more than twelve million Afro-Colombians.

One day, I thought that those politicians who have controlled the State for two centuries, and the education system itself were responsible for my lack of knowledge. Nevertheless, and even though this appreciation wasn’t wrong, I knew that I also was responsible because I had never done anything to face this complex problem of racial discrimination in Colombia. Then I started to search and I found the National Movement for the Human Rights of Afro-Colombian Communities CIMARRON, the NGO that leads the Union of Afro-Colombian Organizations. So, I became part of the Movement, which was created to promote the elimination of racial discrimination, and strengthen the participation and empowerment of the Afro-Colombian population.


In this presentation I’m going to introduce statistics that show how difficult the Afro-Colombian situation is, in economic, social, and political terms. And I’m going to present the goals and outcomes that we’ve achieved for the last two years using education as our main strategy, and mentioning who has participated in our advocacy process.


Afrocolombian Situation and Racial Discrimination in Numbers


I would like to mention before presenting statistics, that Afrocolombians have historically been victims of “the cycle of racial discrimination”, a concept I want to explain using a simple example: The legal minimum salary is 140 dollars per month in Colombia. Tuition in the best universities costs more than 4,000 dollars, and living and other expenses more than 2,000 dollars. To enter to one of these universities it’s necessary to have a very good average in the state exams, so your education level also has to be good, and that means you have to put your children in good private schools, and these private schools are as expensive as the private universities. These schools and universities and our laws and Constitution don’t discriminate against anyone… So, the question is: why are just .01%, or sometimes less, of the students in these universities Afro-Colombians...?


The answer is really easy to understand: That’s the same percentage of Afro-Colombians, .01, or sometimes less, occupying important public and private positions. So, that’s why most Afro-Colombians can’t afford to send their children to good private schools or to prestigious universities. So, it doesn’t matter if one university doesn’t discriminate in its policies, we should consider that happens when universities don’t promote affirmative action for minorities.

I want to clarify that the Afro-Colombian people are a minority in political terms, but not in demographic terms, as you will see in the following summary: Afro-Colombians comprise approximately 30% of all Colombians, which means, more than twelve million people. 95% of Afro-Colombians can’t afford to send their children to universities because of lack of incomes.


The level of the quality of education of Afro-Colombians is 40% below the national average. The average income per capita of Afro-Colombians is 500 dollars per year; while the national average is 1,500 dollars per year. And 75% of Afro-Colombians receive salaries less than the legal minimum.


In terms of housing and health, Afro-Colombians are 42% below the national average. And 80% of Afro-Colombians live, I would rather say survive, in extreme poverty. In other words, almost ten million people live in these dramatic conditions. Curiously, these statistics are official. The source is the National Plan of Development, which was done by the Department of National Planning of Colombia. And even though this state institution as well as others recognize how difficult the Afro-Colombian situation is, they don’t do anything to solve the problems.


I would like to add that in terms of the internal conflict the Afro-Colombian situation is even more dramatic, not only because its impact has produced more economic, political and social exclusion, but also because a lot of Afro-Colombians have been victims of the forced displacement produced by the armed groups. Official sources say that at least 30% of displaced people are Afro-Colombians. However, we think that Afro-Colombians comprise at least 50% of the displaced population given the regions most affected by the internal conflict.


The Afro-Colombian National School: Goals, Strategy and Outcomes


The Afro-Colombian National School is the most important project that we have at CIMARRON in terms of education. This School was created in 2000 with the support of the United States Agency for International Development USAID, to empower the Afro-Colombian people, actually to face all the issues I’ve been mentioning.


The Afro-Colombian National School is a training program. The School is led by a team of Afro-Colombian academics who travel all over the country teaching about political, constitutional and human rights. It was designed to educate community leaders and Afro-Colombian teachers. In addition, they (both leaders and professors) provide suggestions, opinions and feedback to improve our methods of teaching Afro-Colombian issues, after working in roundtable discussions. The materials utilized are: the Manual of The Afro-Colombian National School, that contains eight modules in which the workshops and lectures are outlined, audiovisual material, cassettes and photographs.


The Afro-Colombian National School produces amazing results on people who don’t know anything about their rights. For example, the empowerment of the Afro-Colombian Women’s National Network was proposed in the first training program and now we are working on it. Moreover, the Union of Afro-Colombian Organizations and the education level of trained people have been strengthening since the training programs began.


In this sense, it’s important to remark that the real success of the training program is that trained people return to their schools and communities, and teach about the same issues. So, they communicate to others all the information that they learned by relying on the Manual of the Afro-Colombian National School that we give to them.


Finally, I would like to say that we have had three limitations in the School:


Firstly, we would like to give to the people technological tools, such as computers and others equipment that they don’t have because of their social and economic conditions.


Secondly, sometimes people ask us how they can develop their own education and development projects, and our information is limited because we still are in the process of identifying foundations and institutions that can support those projects and our projects.


And thirdly, sometimes our people get angry when they understand which, what and how their history has been. They ask us for books and libraries, but we don’t have the resources to provide them, and actually that’s a responsibility of the State. Nevertheless, we are trying to face these limitations according to our perspectives on the future of Colombia.


[1] B.A in Political Science and B.A in History - Universidad de los Andes (Bogota). Cultural manager and story-teller. Alumnus of the “Human Rights Advocates Training Program” - Columbia University (N.Y). Alumnus of the Course “Young Leaders of Latin-America on Democracy, Leadership and Development” - Inter-American Development Bank. Alumnus of the “International Visitor Program on Democracy” - U.S Department of State. Coordinator of the Social Development and Human Rights Committee at the Afro-Colombian Movement CIMARRON. Correspondent of EIP (Ecole International Instrument de Paix) in Colombia. Note: This paper was presented at the international event “Afro-Colombians: A forgotten side of the Colombian conflict” at the University of Pennsylvania in 2002.

[2] Anonymous story.