Peter-Zoellick World BankLet us establish an important point from the outset. We are not talking about racism of a garden variety that, albeit still stinging, is largely benign. We are dealing with an institutional racism where a director of a department can openly announce in a public meeting that he cannot hire black professionals because "blacks do not make good accountants" and besides he would not "want [his] department to look like a ghetto."

We are contending with an institution where there is a term for segregation of blacks in one of the Bank's several buildings - "Ghettoization". We are talking about an institution where the Staff Association's repeated plea "to address seriously the issue of ghettoization" is ignored.

We are dealing with an institution that requires blacks and only blacks to go through a special screening process before they can be considered for a management position outside of Africa; an institution that publicly acknowledges such a practice without a hint of shame.

No, we are not talking about a far-flung place from civilization. No, please forget about the Jim Crow era in the US a century or so ago. Fast-forward to 2012 and walk two blocks west of the White House, down Pennsylvania Avenue.You would come to a glittering architecture enclosed by glass with aluminum façade sitting regally on an entire city block, an institution that boasts of being the second largest employer in Washington, next only to the federal government. Welcome to 1818. Not the year 1818, but the Street address of the World Bank on H Street. To get there you would have to cross what had become an epitome of racism: "Apartheid Avenue," a nickname for what is officially known as 18th Street.

Neo-Apartheid World Bank

The term Apartheid may have its roots in South Africa, which literally means "the status of being apart," but the system is practiced in various shades and different names around the world. In some places it exists without a name. In its pure form Apartheid is a system of racial segregation enforced through legislation. Whether Apartheid is the official governing principle of a state or an undeclared but systemically practiced policy of an institution is a distinction without a difference. In like manner, whether segregation involves restricting blacks from economic and career opportunities and from "whites only" living quarters and water fountains, or pertains only to a systemic practice of segregation in the work place constitutes a superficial not a material difference. Both situations degrade and dehumanize.

In principle, the World Bank's bylaws and staff rules negate an unjust practice. In practice, however, systemic discrimination is institutionalized with impunity. A 1992 World Bank internal review found that blacks are "recruited one level lower than comparably qualified staff from other parts of the world; paid significantly lower average salary level; and restricted to lower profile assignments." A 1998 World Bank study confirmed "black staff members are recruited disproportionately in the secretarial grades, ignoring the educational and professional success they have achieved that make them qualified for the professional ranks of the Bank." It concluded "discrimination against blacks translates into a denial of opportunity and inequitable treatment on the basis of the color of their skin." A 2005 report by the Staff Association decried "the status of racial discrimination in the Bank is very bad" and noted that "black graduates of US Ivy league schools are trapped as short term consultant after many years, 15 years for some." The Bank's systemic policy of consigning blacks to lower positions is not materially different from a

caste system.

The fact that black staff and consultants face systemic segregation in the Africa region is also documented in several reports and reflected in the Bank's racial diversity scorecards published quarterly by the Diversity Office. It is not without reason that 18th Street that divides the Bank's Main Complex from the "J" Building where blacks are segregated is nicknamed Apartheid Avenue.

In a recent article entitled "Unmasking Racism at the World Bank" and featured in Pambazuka News, this author provided an expose of "the twin evils that have bedeviled the World Bank's relationship with Africa as a continent and Africans as human beings. The first is structural: it concerns a 'democracy deficit' in the Bank's governance architecture that has denied Africa voice in the institution's Boardroom. The second is cultural: it involves institutional discrimination in the day-to-day management of the Bank that has demeaned and dehumanized people of African origin for decades. Dealing with the cultural malice requires first addressing the structural ills." Let us focus on the cultural.

It Is The Culture, Stupid!

According to a 2005 Staff Association's report, in a span of five years, over 450 victims of racial discrimination filed complaints with the office of the Bank's Senior Advisor for Racial Equality. Since then the Bank stopped disclosing the number of black complainants. The policy is: "if the evidence exposes a disgraceful culture, kill the evidence and let the culture live."

The Bank houses renowned economists and financial experts from around the world. In this reside both the strength and the weakness of the institution. The intellectual prowess of World Bank officials is widely accepted. The fact that most of them are culturally challenged to function in a civilized world is, however, less understood. To put it bluntly, you can take Harvard educated and Oxford trained economists out of their countries where a caste system or the perceived superiority of one race over another constitutes the social construct, but you cannot take the culture of bigotry out of them. Just as obviously, a person who came of age in a society where a father is justified for "honor killing" his daughter for dating a man who is a shade darker than her is not cultivated to understand racial equality in the work place. Such people are psychologically predisposed to clinging to the ills of their cultures and smuggling them into the Bank's personnel policy.

How is this possible in the 21st century? The answer lies with the Bank's immunity from US laws that has created an environment of lawlessness and impunity. As African American who came of age in the post Civil Rights era, this author's exposure to overt institutional racism has been limited to history books and discussions with older African American folks. That changed after she joined the World Bank and met mangers who acted like masters in a caste hierarchy. For many World Bank managers a black man's or woman's place in the World Bank is naturally preordained by the color of his/her skin.

The Cultural Tension: The Evil Trumps the Good

In an illuminating article entitled When Good Men Do Nothing, Wayne Greeson wrote:

Time and again those who profess to be good seem to clearly outnumber those who are evil, yet those who are evil seem to prevail far too often. Seldom is it the numbers that determine the outcome, but whether those who claim to be good men are willing to stand up and fight for what they know to be right.

Needless to say, the World Bank has more than its share of decent human beings and fair managers. There are many who are genuinely interested in alleviating poverty from the world, not least from Africa. They are truly colorblind in the most elastic sense of the term. Sadly though, the Bank also harbors managers who are blinded by color, who are large enough in their numbers and tenacious enough in their zeal to contaminate the institutional culture. Sadly, also, the institution's policy has not been rooting them out, but trying to work with "the unique challenges of a large inter-governmental organization taking into account the institution's multicultural needs." This was a statement made by one of the Bank's former Presidents in a letter to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), responding to a well documented criticism that the Bank has no effective mechanism to reign in racially biased managers. This meant embracing managers who labeled people of African origin as "unsophisticated and inferior," as a 1998 World Bank report documented.

Despite several World Bank reports documenting systemic and all-encompassing discrimination against people of African origin, and in spite of hundreds of racial discrimination complaints filed by victims of discrimination, not a single manager has been held accountable. Alas, the morally malnourished and the ethically devoid souls have made their culture of bigotry the culture of the institution. As Edmund Burke rightly said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." And the good people do nothing as the disenfranchised in their midst suffer. Racism in the Bank is not an isolated case. It is an institutional culture.

The Pain and the Grieving Process: Rejected and Condemned

A lot has been written about the stages of grief that victims of rape go through. The process involves five stages - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Rape is a traumatic experience because it violates what is inviolable and chips away people's sense of dignity. It diminishes a person's self worth. Surviving such an experience requires gathering the shattered pieces, resuscitating one's emotional core from a state of numbness, nursing the emotional wounds, and building trust first in oneself and then in others.

This author cannot begin to imagine what it is like to be a victim of rape. But what she knows for sure is that racial discrimination, like rape, chips away at people's human dignity and degrades their humanity. It changes their perceptions of themselves and of the world around them. They, too, would need to glue their shattered pieces and resurrect their emotional core before they can reclaim their lives. They experience the same stages of grief, like victims of rape.

First is the proverbial denial stage, which is a coping mechanism to deal with a pain that it too painful to handle. It is nature's therapeutic way of controlling the emotional floodgate and letting in only as little as the person is capable of handling. What is filtered out is denied to give the brain time and space to absorb what has been filtered in. Once the full gravity of the reality sinks in, denial gives way to anger. If denial is nature's way of camouflaging pain, anger represents an emotional eruption to push the pain into the open and face it head on. The third stage is bargaining, in which the victim comes to terms with the pain. This, in turn, sets into motion the fourth stage: depression. Such a painful emotional rollercoaster has to run its course with excruciating agony before the victim returns to something resembling normalcy.

For the Bank's managers any sign of anger in the face of brazen and unapologetic discrimination is a manifestation of "unprofessional conduct," or "an attitude problem." This perspective, albeit spiteful, appears poetic: if blacks knew their place in the Bank's Neo-Apartheid hierarchy and played their roles within the "natural order" there would be no need for "anger" and definitely no reason for "depression." Any manifestation of anger or depression is seen as self-imposed distraction and therefore a legitimate ground for termination. This may not represent a leap of logic to those who grew up believing that girls who are "honor killed" bring it upon themselves by going out of their caste. These are the people who are running the World Bank and in whose hands African Americans suffer in their own birth land. Since 1978 four reports have established African Americans represent the most discriminated group, even when compared to their African counterparts - Washington Post (1978); World Bank (1998); GAP (2009) and the Guardian UK (2012).

The World Bank is a recipient of billions of US tax payers' money in cold cash and guarantees. Justice for Blacks calls upon the civil and human rights community to (i) sign its "End Racial Discrimination at the World Bank" petition on; and (ii) contact the US Attorney General Eric Holder to initiate an investigation into the World Bank for violation of human and civil rights – call (202) 353-1555 or (202) 514 - 4609.

The author (PHYLLIS MUHAMMAD), an African American, is a former World Bank Staff Counselor and a member of Justice for Blacks, which is organized to combat racism at the World Bank. She holds a JD from Harvard Law School. 

Add comment