Building peace in the minds of men and women

Featured articles

Anti-racism: UNESCO’s early mental engineering 


(UNESCO Courier, July-August, 1950)

On the occasion of International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (21 March), read this article by Poul Duedahl, Professor of History at Aalborg University, Denmark. Constructing peace in the minds of people – this is UNESCO's overall mandate. Mission: Impossible? Not necessarily. Professor Poul Duedahl is betting on UNESCO's impact on moral standards over the last seven decades.*

Poul Duedahl

“UNESCO came out with a study that said that Blacks – at that time Negroes – were not inferior, and there was no fundamental genetic difference between Blacks and Whites,” recalled Reverend Jesse Jackson, at a conference on Human Rights, organized in 2002 by the J.F. Kennedy Presidential Library (Boston). “We went around the South giving speeches, holding up the UNESCO study, saying that Blacks were not inferior. A world body had studied and concluded that we were not inferior. It was a big deal, ” added the famous US Civil Rights activist. “UNESCO, a world body – not some Southern segregated school, not some Southern governor, not even the President – UNESCO said we were not inferior.”

Such a testimony reflects the impact of one of UNESCO’s early mental engineering initiatives aiming to combat racial inequality. It is true that even today, sixty-five years after the first UNESCO Statement on race, humanity still has to fight against racism and its related issues, but it is obvious that the moral condemnation of racism, supported by scientific evidence, that UNESCO spread around the world since 1950, not only reached people on the ground, or at least some of the leading figures, but also influenced them.

How UNESCO made its voice heard

 “Whenever it is, whatever form it takes, racism is an evil force, and to the extent that UNESCO can kill it by the truth, it will do good,” the New York Times proclaimed in “The Myth of Race”, published on 19.7.1950.To eliminate thinking in terms of superior and inferior races among a large number of people takes more than issuing a statement. To make its voice heard, UNESCO organized a major campaign reported by the press.

The same year, the Statement on race was reproduced in full in three magazines and mentioned in 133 news articles, 62 in-depth articles and in eight major news reports from all over the world. Besides these articles recorded in an inventory of press clippings, it was estimated that there were an additional 50-75 articles that UNESCO had not tracked. In addition, there was some radio publicity and the distribution of the thousands of copies of the Statement itself.

Also the UNESCO Courier had an important role to play in the promotion of the moral condemnation of racism. Already in November 1949, the Organization’s popular journal issued an in-depth article on “The Question of Race and the Democratic World”, announcing a series of pamphlets on race questions to be published starting from 1950. (See our selection of issues and articles on racisme in the UNESCO Courier)

To reach an even wider audience and for a longer time span, UNESCO engaged a number of recognized researchers to write about different topics in relation to race, and published numerous small pamphlets, grouped under three series: The Race Question and Modern Science, The Race Question and Modern Thought, and Race and Society.

But it soon turned out that the pamphlets had problems reaching the “man in the street” in most of the countries, in part because they were published only in English and French, but also because they were too difficult to understand. The reader required at least a high school degree to grasp the contents. In addition, their layout was not very compelling. 

Towards new ways of thinking

Nonetheless, in the early 1950s the pamphlets were among UNESCO’s best-selling publications and represented a substantial proportion of all the new titles published in the United States in the field of anthropology. In the late 1950s the pamphlets had been translated into 13 languages and printed in more than 300,000 copies.

In the long run, they infiltrated national education systems, because they were written by recognized scientists, they were discussed and used in leading scientific journals, and represented a steady bombardment of publications that at least physical anthropologists had to deal with.

Along with the pamphlets, UNESCO issued four statements on race, from 1950 to 1967.

That had consequences, of course, but not always the ones intended by UNESCO. South Africa withdrew from UNESCO in 1956 as a consequence of the race pamphlets and what was felt to be the Organization’s interference in internal affairs. In the US, some of the publications were severely criticized, and in Los Angeles, all UNESCO publications were eventually banished from the public school system in 1953, which again led to apprehension among school administrators all over the US concerning the use in public schools of any of UNESCO’s publications, regardless of their content.

On the other hand these incidents only added to the public awareness. Also, as a number of segregation cases reached the US Supreme Court, the outcome of UNESCO’s Race Program would play a role in the eradication of state-approved segregation. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, several experts affiliated with UNESCO and its Race Program were brought in as expert witnesses. In 1967, for example, the US Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the laws that banned interracial marriages.

There is therefore no doubt that UNESCO's statements on race and the authority with which they spoke had a psychological impact and that they paved the way for a new way of thinking. 

* Excerpt from the article "Is UNESCO Changing the World? Poul Duedahl's Response on the Issue of Racism

Discover the UNESCO Courier issues dedicated to the subject of racism.

Poul Duedahl

Professor of History at the Department of Culture and Global Studies at Aalborg University, Denmark, Poul Duedahl is the Director of the Global History of UNESCO Project. He is the editor of A History of UNESCO: Global Actions and Impacts, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, in which, leading historians within the field trace the routes of selected initiatives from the center to the periphery – from UNESCO's Headquarters in Paris, to the member states – to assess UNESCO's global impact from World War II and up till today.