Race Unity

Around the world, Baha'i communities promote tolerance and racial harmony

Worldwide, Bahá'ís have sought first and foremost to build a model of racial integration within their own communities, embracing people from all races, backgrounds and classes of society.

Since its founding more than 150 years ago, the Bahá'í International Community has sought to promote the ideal of racial unity, both in its own communities at the local, national and international levels, and in the world at large.

Writing in the mid-1800s, Bahá'u'lláh stated unequivocally that humanity is a single race, and He called on the world to recognize the principle of human oneness in all spheres. "Close your eyes to racial differences," Bahá' u'lláh wrote, "and welcome all with the light of oneness."

Since then, Bahá'í communities worldwide have steadfastly sought to implement this ideal.

In India, where the Faith was established in the late 1800s, Bahá'ís have long fought against caste discrimination and sought to promote a model of intercommunal harmony, embracing believers from all backgrounds and classes of society. The earliest Bahá'ís in India were from Muslim and Zoroastrian backgrounds, but believers from Hindu and Sikh backgrounds soon embraced the Faith.

By 1920, there were local Bahá'í communities in Bombay, Karachi, Delhi, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Lahore, Mandlay, Rangoon, Daidnaw, and Pune, and by the end of 1950, Bahá'í literature was available in a wide range of Indian languages: Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Panjabi, Urdu, and Bengali. In the 1960s, many Bahá'ís from lower caste backgrounds embraced the Faith, and Bahá'ís belonging to different castes associate with each other in complete harmony and often serve together on local Bahá'í councils. In 1994, the Supreme Court of India recognized the Bahá'í community of India as a successful model for communal harmony.

In the United States of America, Bahá'ís were in the early 1900s among the first religious communities to hold fully integrated meetings. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Bahá'í community of the United States also began to hold public "race amity" meetings. One such event in 1921 sponsored by the Bahá'í community in Springfield, Massachusetts, drew some 1,200 people.

In South Africa, where Bahá'ís have lived since 1911, the Bahá'í community has always been fully integrated, despite the system of apartheid that kept races separate and discriminated wholly in favor of whites.

Under the watchful eye of the South African Government's special police, who were charged with maintaining racial separation, Bahá'ís held administrative and worship meetings in private homes, since integrated meetings in public were forbidden.

In such meetings, whites usually entered through the front door, while blacks came in through the kitchen. Yet, despite such restrictions, the first national Bahá'í governing council of South Africa, elected in 1956, had four white members and five blacks - a degree of integration that was extremely rare, if not unique, for any sort of national organization in South Africa at the time.

Beyond their efforts to build a model of racial integration within their own communities, Bahá'ís have also actively sought to promote the ideal of unity in the societies around them, using a wide range of non-violent and peaceful means. These activities include work with the United Nations and its agencies, with governments and like-minded non-governmental organizations and religious groups; educational initiatives; media-based outreach campaigns; grassroots initiatives; youth workshops; and individual initiatives that encompass a variety of innovative and creative approaches to local problems and concerns.

In 1997, for example, the Bahá'í International Community launched a global campaign to promote human rights education, in support of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004). The campaign encourages national Bahá'í communities to become involved with their governments and with other NGOs in promoting human rights education, outlining a broad program of action that includes as a key element efforts to promote tolerance and an end to racial discrimination.

More than 100 of the Community's national affiliates participated in training sessions at the start of the campaign, and 50 have already undertaken some form of human rights education activities. In addition, 39 have in-country training for those who, in support of the Decade, will be interacting with government officials and NGOs, either nationally or locally.

In Australia, the Bahá'í community has participated in or sponsored various events during the annual "National Refugee Week." Such events have ranged from seminars on the problems facing refugees to the hosting of simple "afternoon tea" gatherings and interfaith prayer services.

In Canada, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Canada established in 1992 an annual "Unity in Diversity Week." Held in November, the week has typically been observed by more than 100 local Bahá'í communities, which reach out to like-minded groups and organizations to hold events such as cultural festivals, seminars and workshops, or public talks - even pancake breakfasts - with a focus on the elimination of prejudice.

In Rwanda, the national governing body of the Bahá'í community issued a statement in March 2000 to the National Commission for Unity and Reconciliation. It urged the Commission to consider the principle of human oneness as a basis for reconciliation in the country, which saw ethnic fighting at the level of genocide in the 1990s.

"Bahá'ís believe that humankind has always constituted one species, but that prejudice, ignorance, power seeking and egotism have prevented many people from recognizing and accepting this oneness," stated the Rwandan National Assembly, urging the adoption of a program for moral education that would seek both to abolish prejudices and to foster social and economic development.

In the United Kingdom, the Bahá'í community in January 2001 established the Institute for Social Cohesion as a forum for research and discussion on the question: "What is it that makes a society stick together?"

"What became clear is that the existing models and language aren't working," said Dan Wheatley, external affairs spokesman for the UK Bahá'í community. "There is a need for new models, new ideas and even a new language in developing a more cohesive society."

In the United States, the Bahá'í community closely collaborated with President Clinton's year-long Initiative on Race, launched in July 1997 to stimulate a dialogue on race relations throughout the country, which engendered a series of local town meetings and regional religious forums. Local Bahá'í communities throughout the country participated in those forums and, as a result, Bahá'ís were asked to be on the planning committee for a summit in October 1998 of forty national faith leaders to discuss how religious communities can contribute to improving race relations. The Bahá' ís were later asked to participate on the planning committee for a second conference with the president and some 150 faith leaders in March 2000.

Bahá'í communities in the United States organize or are substantial contributors to countless Martin Luther King Day observances throughout the country. Representatives of the National Spiritual Assembly served on the MLK Jr. Federal Holiday Commission. Bahá'ís have also supported the activities of the King Center in Atlanta and played a major role in King Week festivities each year.

The US Bahá'ís have also produced and sponsored the broadcast of a series of videos designed to reach households in every part of the country with positive messages about spiritual solutions to social problems. The first video, "The Power of Race Unity," is about four individuals who actively work for racial reconciliation in their communities. It continues to be broadcast on cable TV channels along with 30- and 60-second commercial spots on the themes "Children Without Prejudice," "World Citizen," "One Race," and "Golden Rule."

"In the United States, race unity is our primary occupation and has been for almost 100 years," said Robert Henderson, secretary general of the Bahá'í community of the US. "Bahá'ís here sponsor each year over 1,000 activities and projects to promote race unity, from race unity walks and days to much more sophisticated and long-term activities that engage social institutions like hospitals and police departments and school systems."

At the grassroots level, Bahá'í communities around the world have engaged in numerous activities and projects that promote race unity, cross-cultural harmony, and religious and ethnic tolerance.

In Brazil, the Bahá'ís of Salvador in the state of Bahia organized in February 2000 a Gathering of Afro-Descendants. The event, like four previous such gatherings, gave special attention to Afro-Brazilian cultural elements in the arts, in cooking, in dress and in history, seeking the incorporation of these elements in harmony with the Bahá'í activities.

In India, there are more than 40 schools operated by Bahá'ís or Bahá'í institutions. Race unity and communal harmony - including teachings against caste prejudice - are fundamental elements of the curriculum. Since its founding in 1977, for example, the Rabbani School in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, has sought to enroll and provide scholarships for mostly poor students from nearby villages from all castes - and to ensure that high- and low-caste students are fully integrated in campus life. With an enrollment of about 300 students, the school has an extensive moral education component to its curriculum that stresses the equality of all people.

Around the world, as well, Bahá'í youth have been at the forefront in the movement to promote race unity, principally by establishing "youth workshops" that explore cutting edge social issues through an intensive process of group consultation, combined with improvisational training in acting and dance.

These workshops then give free performances for their peers, offering up a self-realized message that stresses ending racial prejudice, freedom from substance abuse, the emancipation of women and other progressive social principles. So far, Bahá'í youth in more than 50 countries have started youth workshops.

In Dakar, Senegal, for example, Bahá'í youth have established a dance group called "Les Etincelles" (The Sparks) with the aim of promoting unity. The group was established in June 1999, and has since then devised and produced three different dances on the theme of the unity of the human race. The group has started performing in schools and other audiences in Dakar and suburbs, and has each time elicited a warm response from the audience.