Assessing Law 70: A Fanonian Critique of Ethnic Recognition in the Republic of Colombia.

Author:Pirsoul, Nicolas


In 1991, the Republic of Colombia recognized the ethno-cultural diversity of its population through a new constitution. In 1993, this constitutional recognition gave birth to Law 70, also known as the Law of blackness (Ley de negritudes). To this day, Law 70 represents a model of legal recognition for Afro-descendent on the continent. The scope of benefits for Black communities deriving from the law is very broad: collective land rights, ethno-education rights, political representation rights. The content of Law 70 is therefore highly progressive and represents a genuine step forward for these Afro-descendent communities after centuries of oppression, invisibilization and forced assimilation. In spite of these legal advancements the current state of the Afro-Colombian population nevertheless remains very problematic since they continue to suffer greatly from many socio-economic problems.

Indeed, rural Black communities suffer greatly from the armed conflict still afflicting Colombia's countryside and an estimated 13% of the Afro-Colombian population is in a situation of forced internal displacement because their lands are located in areas of lawlessness where narco-traffic, guerrilla and paramilitary activities are increasing ever since the early nineties.

Poverty is another major problem and impacts the lives of both rural and urban Afro-Colombians (Rodriguez Garavito, Alfonso Sierra, and Cavalier Adarve 2008, 30-31). In Buenaventura, an almost entirely Afro-Colombian city, up to 80% of the population lives in poverty (De Roux 2010, 14). This general economic marginalization means that almost 15% of the Afro-Colombian population suffers from hunger. This is twice as much as the average Colombian population (7.22%) (Rodriguez Garavito, Alfonso Sierra, and Cavalier Adarve 2008, 31). Living conditions further reflect this economic marginalization since the access of Black communities to basic services such as running water, sewage systems and access to electricity is a lot lower than the average population (Rodriguez Garavito, Alfonso Sierra, and Cavalier Adarve 2008, 54-57).

Illiteracy is another social problem affecting Afro-Colombians as almost twice as many Afro-Colombians as Mestizos are considered illiterate (Rodriguez Garavito, Alfonso Sierra, and Cavalier Adarve 2008, 41-44). This low literacy rate reveals a broader problem with education for Afro-Colombian communities since 11% of Afro-Colombian children do not attend primary school while 27% do not attend secondary education (Rodriguez Garavito, Alfonso Sierra, and Cavalier Adarve 2008, 43). Access to tertiary education therefore logically remains difficult as well.

Afro-Colombians generally occupy positions which necessitate fewer qualifications and which are less remunerated (Garavito et al. 2013, 7-8). With equal qualifications, they are less likely to be called for an interview than mestizos (1) and indigenous people when applying for work (Garavito et al. 2013, 18). Unemployment therefore affects Afro-Colombians in big urban centers with a majority mestizo population because of discrimination but it also affects Afro-Colombian communities in Black regions such as Choco because of lack of opportunities. In these isolated regions, work conditions for Afro-Colombians are difficult as they usually serve as cheap labor on palm plantations and in other primary sector industries.

Research has shown that mainstream media plays a role in the reproduction of racial stereotypes as they relate blackness with hyper-sexuality, strength, folklore and happiness, dance, servility and social problems (Leon Banos 2012, 24-30). The phenomenon of racism towards Afro-descendent in Colombia is well documented and contrasts with the official discourse of Latin America as a racial democracy.

Given all these social difficulties, it is therefore logical that the life expectancy of Afro-Colombians is a lot lower (64,6 for men and 66,7 for women) than the average for the Colombian population taken as a whole (70,3 for men and 77,5 for women). These numbers mean that the average Afro-Colombian woman lives 10,8 years less than the average Colombian woman (Rodriguez Garavito, Alfonso Sierra, and Cavalier Adarve 2008, 29-30).

Facing these facts, it is more than legitimate to critically assess the socio-economic potential of Law 70 and the legal recognition of Afro-descendants in Colombia. In this article I suggest that the legal framework of recognition adopted by Colombia reflects some key issues with the politics of recognition in post-colonial settings. I argue that the phenomenon at play in Colombia can better be understood through a Fanonian critique of the post-Hegelian theory of identity politics.

This article is divided into five sections. Section one gives a brief overview of the theories of recognition and multicultural citizenship. Section two discusses the 1991 Colombian constitution and relates its promotion of ethnic diversity and cultural preservation to the politics of recognition. Section three offers an in-depth analysis of the content of Law 70. Section four underlines the political ideals of Afro-Colombian social movements and relates them to the provisions of Law 70. Finally, section five provides a critical analysis of Law 70 through Fanon's theory of identity formation in post-colonial settings.

Identity Politics

It is usually argued that from the 1960's and 1970's political struggles have switched from an emphasis on questions of wealth redistribution to questions of identity (Fraser and Honneth 2003, 7-9). This change was followed and transposed to the field of political theory which, from the early 90's, was marked by an increase in research and literature dealing with identity-related topics.

Identity theorists advocate for a politics of difference. Axel Honneth argues that all political struggles are founded on a feeling of disrespect experienced by subaltern identities. This feeling of social contempt becomes the main motivational factor for struggles for recognition to be waged. The experience of disrespect, understood as an experience of misrecognition for the identity at stake, leads to an experience of social suffering and potential psychological harms (Honneth 1996, 2007). Charles Taylor shares this view and argues that:

The thesis is that our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others, and so a person or a group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being (Taylor 1994, 25). Honneth and Taylor's theories are heavily influenced by Hegelian concepts and this theory needs to be traced back to Hegel's famous lordship and bondage dialectic (usually referred to as master/slave dialectic) in the Phenomenology of Spirit which elaborated the idea that one's identity and self-consciousness needs recognition by another self to fully develop itself. Hegel states that "self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged" (Hegel 1997, 111). To reach such mutual recognition, he describes a struggle between two consciousnesses mutually denying recognition to each other and which try to prove their liberty to the other by risking their life in a struggle to the death. The struggle ends when one of the two consciousnesses, afraid of losing its life, becomes the servant of the other. This leads to an asymmetric relation of recognition where the master is recognized by a consciousness which he himself does not recognize. The recognition is therefore unsatisfactory. In the end it is the dominated consciousness which reaches the truth of its certainty through the experience of work.

Will Kymlicka does not adopt a Hegelian framework and rather emphasizes the importance of identity from a liberal point of view. He argues that liberal societies ought to protect cultures because forcing someone to abandon her culture is a non-reasonable expectation in a political system which promotes freedom. Further, liberalism ought to protect cultures because a plurality of cultures offers the possibility for the citizens of multicultural societies to make informed choices on their own understanding of what the good life ought to be. Multiculturalism therefore promotes freedom by broadening the horizon of choices of the citizens (Kymlicka 2000, 75-105). Kymlicka offers a set of group-differentiated rights aimed at promoting the respect and promotion of minority groups. Kymlicka distinguishes between self-government rights (related to distinct national minority groups living within the border of a state) and polyethnic rights (related to migrant identities in their host societies). The former category covers principally the right to self-determination while the second category covers the protection of cultural distinctiveness for minority ethnic (migrant) groups against the assimilationist tendencies inherent to a necessary integration within the host society. According to Kymlicka, both national and ethnic minority groups can claim special representation rights within the political structure of the state (Kymlicka 2000, 26-33).

This article will offer a critical analysis of the group-differentiated rights perspective offered by Kymlicka. The critique will be immanent to the theory of recognition as I will use Fanon's reading of the Hegelian master/slave parable to demonstrate some of the shortcomings of Afro-Colombian recognition through Law 70.

The 1991 Colombian Constitution and Law 70

I now wish to argue that the 1991 Colombian constitution embodies the theoretical insights of the political theories of recognition and liberal...

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