In the campaign for the 2018 midterm elections in the United States, the issue of race was a bold backdrop. Would blacks have voting access? Is it racist to send troops to stop Central American migrants? Did the president’s use of words like “nationalist” compel a white supremacist to kill Jews in Pittsburgh? At the same time, the diversity of candidates set a record.
To other countries, elections in the US are seen as a way for its citizens to make progress on race but also take stock of whether the country is moving toward racial equality at all. Few if any countries with a diverse people do such a regular moral accounting in public.
Yet as they watch the US from afar, foreigners often wonder if their country needs to put a similar mirror up to themselves. Their biggest concern is often whether racial progress is possible at all.
Despite the end of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and other landmarks in US history, Americans keep questioning their own progress, especially as the economic prospect for African-American men has slowed in recent decades. Progress is too uneven or sometimes reversed.
Such a concern, however, did not stop one country from taking bold action on race last month.
In Tunisia, a largely Arab nation in North Africa with a black minority of 10 to 15 percent of the population, the legislature has passed a strong anti-racism law. Tunisia is now the first African or Arab country to make racial discrimination punishable by a fine and specific jail time.
As home to the start of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has long been a reformer in the region. It formally abolished slavery in 1846 (well ahead of the US). It has piled up many reforms since overthrowing a dictator in 2011, which has only heightened sensitivities to the racism that lingers within its society.
Many Tunisians were shocked into action in 2016 by two highly publicized instances of abuse of black people. Lawmakers realized they needed a law on the books to help prevent such abuses. The new law, for example, sets a $350 fine and one-to-three months in jail for using racist language in public. More aggressive acts receive stiffer penalties.
At the least, the law will help break the taboo of discussing race as a public issue. As in many countries, the mental shift comes after the passage of a law. Many Tunisians still need to accept that citizenship comes with respect for the equality of others.
Or as one activist, Saadia Mosbah of the anti-racist group M’Nemty (My Dream), put it, “We are all the fruits of one tree.”
The race debate in the US likely played a part in Tunisia’s action. While it remains to be seen how the new law will be implemented, Tunisia could now influence other nations in the Middle East and Africa to act more strongly on racial discrimination. What Tunisia did is show that progress on race is possible.