What went wrong? This is the question we naturally ask ourselves when faced with longstanding problems that have existed in our lives for generations.
Racial inequality exists in varying degrees, and has existed in varying degrees, in all societies with a multi-ethnic population. In any democratic nation with more than one ethnic-cultural group, the creation of racial equality has been a contentious and ongoing intergenerational issue.
Public policy shapes the lives of its citizens in ways that many are still unconscious of. The more ethnically diverse a population, the more opportunities and challenges its policy makers will face.
Multiculturalism or equality in the context of inherent biological and historical differences cannot be achieved by creating sameness, but has to be extended to include, integrate and represent the varying world views which are a natural byproduct of the diverse backgrounds and varying needs of the population.
The distinctive goal of a multiracial nation is therefore to allow people to hold, adapt and create new identities within the context of their socio-cultural group as well as their national identity. While early generations of migrants tend to have stronger ties to their countries of origin, this relationship tends to diminish with succeeding generations and many policy makers see no incompatibility between an ethnic affiliation which exists within a larger umbrella of national identity.
Since the birth of democratic multi-ethnic nations where all citizens are equal under the law, the ongoing issue of multiculturalism has been a continuous negotiation and renegotiation of one’s ethnic and cultural heritage and one’s national identity. Decades and in some cases even centuries pass since the declaration of independence and the naturalisation of its immigrations; and yet the persistent issue of our ethnic origins continues to be a source of debate which from time to time escalates into an open conflict.
A key question for multi-ethnic nations to answer is the extent to which certain migratory groups have contributed to the development of the nation as well as their own individual subgroups. The factors involved are undoubtedly diverse, but certain policy measures may allow us to better understand how various ethnic groups have contributed to the nation as a whole.
The treatment of minority groups as marginalised groups by default, especially by short-sighted liberal policy makers, has allowed for the contributions of high-achieving minority groups to go unnoticed; and this is despite the significant role that they have played relative to their small numbers.
For multiethnic nations, crucial issues then concern a recognition of the groups where affirmative action is required; and a recognition of the groups where affirmative action is not needed, but rather where majority groups do not take more credit than what they are due in their collective nation-building efforts. These are not challenges, but rather opportunities for more equitable and creative policy decision-making.
With the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy to point out the flaws, the mistakes, the oversights and the errors of judgment which transpired in the past. It is, after all, the past that created our present; a present from which we will imagine a better–or a bleaker–future. We apologise and apportion blame, we seek reparation, we embark upon affirmative action measures–and all these efforts, which have made significant strides towards achieving racial equality–somehow always seem to fall short when it comes to actualising and achieving it.
If our past attempts at paving the path towards a better, as opposed to a bleaker future, is to be a truly transformative lesson for us; then apportioning a certain level of accountability to the various actors involved can help to heal the rifts, the separations and the ongoing difficulties which have have continued to carry on. It is an exercise in psychic and social responsibility to try to figure out and come to terms with what actually went wrong and what we all need to do to bridge the very real gap that has existed for a very long time.
For if our past attempts had enabled us to achieve the desired result, we would have harmony instead of chaos; and cooperation instead of corruption. No one is blameless and no one is perfect–not even the bastions of hope who have been identified with the strides that have been made towards racial equality.
I Have A Dream
Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech I Have A Dream has been immortalised in the annals of history. It is studied by students of oratory and has been earmarked in people’s hearts and minds. Individuals from all walks of life have been inspired by King’s outlook as well as his dream. What made his words resonate so strongly in the minds and hearts of those who heard them? What power do words have? What influence do they hold over us? Why do they continue to be remembered long after they have been spoken or written?
King had learned at a tender age the dangers of retaliation in the face of oppression and was attracted to Gandhi’s approach of non-violence as a form of power. Like Gandhi, King believed in civil disobedience; in not cooperating with a system that was designed to keep him and his community down. He believed that segregation and discrimination were strange paradoxes in a nation that was founded on the principle that all men were equal. And it is indeed so, in the eyes of the law.
As a devout Christian, King believed that it was not enough for the clergy to only deal with the matters of the soul while ignoring intergenerational suffering such as: unemployment, poor housing and poverty within segments of the subgroup. He was determined to breakthrough the economic disadvantages that had kept people in a continued state of dependency. In fact, the Washington event where King gave his historic I Have A Dream speech was focused on economic rights and opportunities.
While helping grassroots leaders mobilise for sustained mass struggles, King reminded participants that their appeal and their cause was consistent with America’s egalitarian ethos. King extended his appeal to the consciences of all Americans, thereby building more embracive support for civil rights reform.
His strategy of emphasising nonviolent protest and interracial cooperation enabled him to overcome the system of racial segregation and discrimination within segments of the US. But as racial and economic problems pivoted from regional to national and vice versa, a new approach was needed to tackle the issue at a more complex and multifaceted scale.
While the 14th amendment, which was ratified in 1868, guaranteed all citizens equal protection under the law, the legal basis for equality had been limited in achieving its intended purpose. When it comes to racial inequality, social and economic discrimination are as oppressive and as humiliating as legal discrimination. In some cases, it can be even more oppressive than legal discrimination–especially if it has perpetuated through the generations, creating and sustaining a self-widening unbridgeable gap that makes the solution to the injustice more difficult to achieve as time passes by.
Legal equality is meaningless verbatim in the face of social and economic sanctions practised by groups under conditions which are not within the range of the law. By denying people jobs, the acquisition of skills, the business opportunities, the banking facilities as well as the complex machinery of a modern economy, racial inequality will continue to persist; much to the detriment of the interests of the majority group.
What ultimately immortalised King, however, was not his economics, but his compassion. And it was a compassion that he did not just extend to African Americans, but to all of mankind.
Looking back through the annals of history, one of the stark truths which must be admitted is that there never was true harmony in any sense of the word. Even the Golden Ages of History that historians would like us to believe were unmarked by strife were characterised by tolerance, accommodation and a certain level of give and take. Even during these so-called Golden Ages, there was, in fact, the muted grumble of those who did not receive their rights or their ‘fair share’. But as long as things were tolerable, they continued on; till a crisis emerged and disgruntled grumbles turned to widespread protests, fights and riots.
The truce that exists between the perceived oppressor and the oppressed, between the haves and the have-nots, between those with authority and those without, is not true harmony. It is merely an acceptance of the unalterable facts of life so long as they are tolerable.
History, however, also teaches us that at certain pivotal turning points, changing values and ideas result in either the rejection or the destruction of the status quo and a dramatic move is made towards a more equitable solution. As equality must mean an increase of privileges for the have-nots; and a decrease in privileges for the haves, the process of achieving it reshapes the earlier truce for a more equitable temporary truce.
Once equality is achieved, no matter how momentarily, society is less subjected to the stresses of racial injustice, for a period of time. There will inevitably be new conflicts later on, but the primary recognised cause of it will have temporarily been placated.
Real, resolute and heartfelt harmony as a natural state of affairs has never been achieved anywhere. What is often dubbed harmony is simply the temporary absence of open conflict for when our injustices are tolerable, we do not possess the desire or the capacity to create open conflict. If there is no open conflict, it was because there was no continuum of events which occurred for an open confrontation to arise.
While there existed a muted consciousness and understanding of discomfort, this understanding allowed us to stay in a state of truce–which both inhibited the creation of closer relations as well as all out confrontations. But it was in this state of truce that the seeds for conflict were planted; but were prevented from flourishing due to external factors that were hitherto not conducive for its uprising.
For nation-building purposes, however, racial equality is an indisputable prerequisite of progress. But when the gap between policy makers and the needs and realities of people grows so wide that policy makers are no longer able to feel the pulse of the people or interpret it correctly in a timely manner, they will not be able to foresee the radical changes that have occurred in the milieu and the temperament of the population. What is forgotten is that the failure to face these facts early on is what led to the very conflict that everyone was desperate to avoid.
In fact, what is needed is not merely an ideal of racial equality but a considerable investment into holistically understanding the events of the past in order to bridge generations and perhaps even centuries of inequality and injustice. The discrimination itself is rooted in transgenerational trauma; so the process of healing and balancing this will also take several generations before the ideal is achieved as a natural state of affairs.
Once this has happened, true racial equality will cease to be just a dream.