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US racial justice envoy calls out Tunisian president's 'incendiary' rhetoric

In an interview with Al-Monitor, the State Department's special representative for racial equity and justice, Desirée Cormier Smith, discussed the challenges facing marginalized racial and ethnic groups in the Middle East.
Tunisia migrants

WASHINGTON — The State Department’s racial justice envoy expressed concern over Tunisian President Kais Saied’s “inflammatory and incendiary rhetoric” and said the administration was considering "additional measures" to encourage the North African country to meet its obligations under international law.

Desirée Cormier Smith, the department’s first-ever special representative for racial equity and justice, spoke with Al-Monitor following her five-day trip to the Jordanian capital of Amman. The visit marked her first to the region as special representative. 

Cormier Smith described her mission as twofold: “Ensuring US policies are supporting the human rights of these communities, and that US policies are combating structural racism, discrimination and xenophobia.”

While in Jordan late last month, Cormier Smith met with marginalized communities, including Middle East refugees, migrant workers from Southeast Asia and Black Jordanians, to discuss how the US government could support them.

Her trip came as scores of sub-Saharan African migrants fled Tunisia following Saied’s Feb. 21 speech, during which the president claimed migrants were part of a conspiracy to change the demographic makeup of Tunisia.

Using rhetoric the African Union condemned as “radicalized hate speech,” Saied urged the Tunisian police to take “urgent measures” against the “hordes of irregular migrants." Police have since detained hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants, prompting several African countries to begin repatriating their citizens. Migrants and Black Tunisians have reported a surge of racist violence in recent weeks, including by vigilante-style gangs

“We've seen reports of African migrants as well as other people of African descent, including Black Tunisians who have been harassed and threatened and targeted simply because of the color of their skin,” Cormier Smith said. 

“That kind of sense of insecurity and fear has only been exacerbated and almost encouraged by this kind of rhetoric from the president,” she added. 

Anti-Black racism isn't limited to Tunisia. A 2022 Arab Barometer survey found that racial discrimination is widely seen as a problem across the Middle East and North Africa, but only a minority of those surveyed believed racism against Black people was a serious issue in their countries. 

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Al-Monitor: You recently returned from Jordan in what was your first trip to the Middle East in your current role. What have you identified as the main issues facing the region's marginalized racial, ethnic and indigenous communities?

Cormier Smith: It was really important to get to every region in the world early in this tenure. I was appointed in June, and my goal is to try and get to every region within the first year. Now, having been to Jordan, I only have two regions left. 

But the trip to Jordan was a fantastic sort of first visit to the region. It gave me a good opportunity to listen and learn, and I had the chance to engage directly with members of marginalized racial and ethnic communities, including refugees from across the region, as well as from sub-Saharan Africa, including migrant workers from Southeast Asia, and including Black Jordanians and Jordanians who are of darker complexion, to hear directly from them, what the challenges are and how they could use US government support in overcoming those challenges.

The consistent thing that I heard is not only the appreciation and the love for Jordan and being in the hospitality of Jordanians, particularly from refugees, but just the desire to be able to have an equal chance and equal shot at contributing to the Jordanian economy, to society writ large, and to have their basic human rights respected.

Al-Monitor: You mentioned that you met with Black Jordanians, and obviously anti-Black racism is a problem in the region. Could you sort of elaborate on your discussions of how the US government can support those groups in overcoming challenges, and how the United States through its foreign policy can sort of confront that racism against Black or darker-complexioned people?

Cormier Smith: That's a really good question, and it's an important point to underscore that anti-Black racism is a particular challenge. And it is not unique to Jordan. It is not unique to the region. It is something that we struggle with in the United States, but it is something that is one of the very few consistencies that I've seen across my travels around the world. So for instance, when I was hearing from Black Jordanians about their challenges of feeling erased, of feeling completely marginalized by a lack of sort of support and opportunities and access to basic services like quality, education, health care, infrastructure — these were the exact same things I was hearing from communities of African descent across Latin America, and so the similarities were quite stark. 

It's important to underscore that my role is all about ensuring US policies are supporting the human rights of these communities and that US policies are combating structural racism, discrimination and xenophobia. This work really is starting with our own policies and programs and engagements and assistance in these countries and seeing how they could support the basic human rights of the communities of marginalized racial, ethnic and indigenous communities in their quest for equality and for justice.

Al-Monitor: You mentioned refugees as well. During your meetings in Jordan, did you discuss the lack of societal inclusion for refugees? I'm thinking especially of Syrian refugees, who were initially welcomed by countries in the region with open arms but are now increasingly seen as a burden by many in their host countries.

Cormier Smith: This was something that came up a lot, and again, it's not unique to Jordan, and it's not unique to the region and it's something that we are actually struggling with in the United States. Jordan has been incredibly hospitable to refugees who have flocked to the country, fleeing horrific circumstances, not only from Syria but from across the region and from parts of sub-Saharan Africa — and they should be commended for that. Consistently I heard from refugees that they were very grateful to be in a place like Jordan where they felt safe, and they felt like they had the opportunity to start their lives again. 

However, it is this difficult challenge, where the Jordanian economy is struggling, and it is easy to try and find a scapegoat. And again, that's something that we see around the world, unfortunately. Generally speaking, the easiest scapegoats tend to be those who are already the most marginalized and the most vulnerable. I heard some pretty harrowing accounts of that from refugees who have been harassed, who have been unable to enroll their children in school because of excessive bullying, who have been unable to get a job to contribute to Jordan's economy and to support themselves and their families simply because of their race or their ethnicity. 

And that is a real challenge. I know that this is something the Jordanian government and the Jordanian people are trying to figure out — how they can strike that balance of continuing to be a welcoming place while also addressing the very real strains that the constant influx and the very large numbers are putting on some of their systems.

Al-Monitor: I'm glad you raised the scapegoating of migrants and refugees in the region, because we're seeing it now play out in Tunisia. Sub-Saharan migrants are reporting a wave of attacks and arrests after President Kais Saied’s speech claiming that migration was part of a plot to change the country's demographic makeup. How does the United States view President Saeid’s rhetoric?

Cormier Smith: We're deeply concerned about that kind of rhetoric. It is inflammatory, and it has real-world consequences. We've seen reports of African migrants as well as other people of African descent, including Black Tunisians who have been harassed and threatened and targeted simply because of the color of their skin. That kind of sense of insecurity and fear has only been exacerbated and almost encouraged by this kind of rhetoric from the president, so we are deeply concerned with that kind of rhetoric. 

We echo the African Union's statement condemning the rhetoric, and we urge the Tunisian authorities to meet their obligations under international law to protect the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. This is something that Tunisia has agreed with in terms of international laws and standards, so we would remind them of that obligation.

Al-Monitor: I'm wondering if there's any more you can say about how US policies and programs can sort of protect the rights of Tunisians but also sub-Saharan migrants in general, and if there are any tools at the administration's disposal to sort of push back against this wave of violence in Tunisia.

The World Bank is now seen as pausing future work with Tunisia over Saeid’s remarks. Tunisia is a recipient of significant US security and economic assistance. Should that be looked at amid this anti-migrant violence?

Cormier Smith: I know my colleagues in Tunisia as well as across the department are looking closely at what additional measures we can take to encourage the Tunisian authorities to again live up to their obligations and international migration policies and standards and basic human rights laws. But at this point, I don't have anything additional to report beyond the fact that we continue to monitor the situation. And again, we are concerned with that kind of rhetoric, and we urge the authorities to refrain from using such inflammatory and incendiary rhetoric.

Al-Monitor: The United States, as you alluded to, is a country that is still grappling with its own legacy of racism. So why should the Middle East listen when you and other diplomats speak of the importance of racial equity and justice?

Cormier Smith: It's a question I get all the time. And I answered the question by reminding folks that my mandate was not created because we have somehow solved these problems in the United States. But it was created because we acknowledge that we are continuing to grapple with these issues, but we aren't the only ones. We acknowledge that racism is a global challenge that will require coordinated and sustained global approaches. And to be clear, my role is not to go around the world to sort of lecture or admonish other governments about the realities of racism or discrimination or xenophobia in their own countries. It is to share best practices and acknowledge that this is a shared challenge. And we may have some lessons learned, some best practices to share, but we can also receive best practices and lessons from around the world.

The other critical thing about my role is that it's really about listening to these communities, so what's most important to me in my travels is actually engaging with marginalized racial, ethnic and indigenous communities, and hearing directly from them about the challenges they're facing and what they need to overcome them. And then trying to find ways that the US government can better support them because in many ways we have already been engaged with these communities. And the reason why this is important is not only is it the morally right thing to do, but it's actually in our national security interests, and it's in a country's national security interests to address deep-rooted inequities. Countries that are able to do so — to address the deeply rooted inequities — they tend to be safer, they tend to be more peaceful, and they tend to be more secure and prosperous, and that is good not only for the members of those communities, but it's good for everyone in the country. 

This is not just a morally right thing to do, it actually is the smart thing to do in terms of building sustainable and inclusive economies, in terms of building durable and resilient and inclusive democracies, and in terms of building inclusive and sustainable peace.

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