Combating Discrimination, Violence, and Intolerance Based on Religion and National Origin Conference (01/28/2014)

Jointly hosted by DRL, DOJ, and DHS
Divani Caravel Hotel

Tuesday, January 28, 9:00am

Good morning.  I am happy to see so many people here, and that we have people from civil society groups and government agencies.

The point of this conference is to discuss ways to build a more inclusive, more tolerant, and more peaceful society, a type of society where there is more tolerance than fear, more respect than conflict.  I believe the U.S. has something particular to offer in this regard.  Though violence and discrimination blot our history, they don’t define it.  There’s always been, and I hope there will always be, a rejoinder than emphasizes respect, kindness, and equality before the law.

The movie Twelve Years a Slave, which is up for several Oscars and has been playing to packed houses in Athens, does a magnificent job of raising questions about how people respond to hate, violence, subjugation, and brutality.  For those who don’t know about the film, it tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New Hampshire and working as a violinist in the mid-19th century.  He is hoodwinked, kidnapped, and taken to Louisiana, where he is sold as a slave.  The film shows the horror of slavery and the dehumanizing effect it has on everyone.  The fact that some people are considered inherently inferior than others because of the color of their skin, and thus expendable, of course, first and foremost, makes life a misery for the slaves. But as the director said in a recent interview, it also disfigures everyone in the society.  The dehumanizing effects of hatred based on race seep into the rest of society too, and poison it.

This kind of dehumanizing attitude and the violence it begets is not, of course, limited to race.  Differences in religion and ethnicity have also been excuses for one or several groups of people to deprive another of its rights.  What I hope this conference and other activities do is foster a vision of a different kind of society, one where that is more humane, tolerant, and open.  It’s the kind of society we have tried to build in the U.S. and that modern Greece has tried to build too.  Neither of us has, I would venture, always succeeded.  Such is the nature of human endeavor.  But it’s remarkable that in both countries there is always a resurgence of the forces that speak up against the forces of intolerance and cynical, expedient discrimination.

As you go forward over the next two-and-a-half days, please take advantage of this chance to learn from one another, to network, and to make our countries stronger.  Thank you for your participation and your efforts to confront discrimination in all forms.  Thank you as well to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and thank you to the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security for organizing this meeting.  I wish you a successful conference.