Lessons about racial discrimination

Last month (March 21) marked the anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa which occurred during a protest against the pass laws.

Apr 11, 2014

By Andrew Hamilton, Eureka Street
Last month (March 21) marked the anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa which occurred during a protest against the pass laws. It ushered in increasingly discriminatory actions against Black South Africans, and can now be seen as the beginning of the end for the regime based on Apartheid.

The South African experience suggests racial discrimination begins with the appropriation of wealth and power by one racial group and its consequent suppression of other groups in order to extend its wealth and power.

The appropriation of power and wealth is naturally resisted by the existing inhabitants. In the course of struggle mutual incomprehension and fear grow, and the indigenous people are seen as strange, primitive, violent, childlike and less than fully human. This can be seen in the early pictorial representations of military or religious contact between native peoples and colonial representatives by Western artists. They leave no doubt which group has power and wealth, whether material or spiritual.

After the dominant group has made secure its appropriation of wealth and power, it comes to assume that its dominance in these respects indicates its inherent superior capacity for power and entitlement to wealth. So the relations between the races are regulated in a way that provide lasting security in power and possessions for the dominant race. It controls and decides the fate of others; the native peoples are controlled and decided for.

In South Africa the pass laws were designed to provide a reliable supply of cheap labour for industry, to ensure a homogeneous environment for white settlers in the cities, and security over the land they had occupied.

In time as the initial conflict lessens and people have time for reflection these unequal and discriminatory relationships need ideological justification. Apartheid was just one of the more explicit ideologies. White and black peoples were seen as equal but different. So should each group have its own space, right down to separate park benches. The subtext, of course, was that one group of people was more equal than others. It was entitled to better conditions and could decide under what conditions other groups might live.

Ideology usually leads to further discrimination because it allows people to act brutally with the shadow of a good conscience. In the name of apartheid millions of black people were forcibly moved from their homes into areas designated for them, pass laws were extended to cover women as well as men, and they lost what little rights they had to representation in Parliament.

Ideology also leads to resistance both physically and on the level of ideas. Sharpeville is emblematic.

The South African example is one of the most radical modern examples of racial discrimination. But the link between power and wealth and racial discrimination is expressed in other ways, too.

Racial prejudice, for example, is fed by the fear of losing power and wealth to a new and apparently favoured group. Prejudice against immigrants and refugees, particularly if they are distinctive by race, colour or religion, is often expressed by people who feel themselves to struggle and lack control over their world. These feelings, which are also found among the affluent, can be manipulated by those who wish to maintain control over power and embodied in policies that are racially discriminatory.

It follows that if we are to address racial prejudice and discrimination we need to examine the way in which wealth and power are distributed and protected in society. In Australia, as in most Western societies, wealth and power are being concentrated increasingly in the hands of fewer people and corporations. It is defended by the ideology of competitive individualism in a free and unregulated market. The threat to the process and ideology does not come from minority racial, religious or ethnic groups but from public awareness and revulsion.

This threat is often met by directing popular frustration at powerlessness and inequality against minority groups, such as asylum seekers, Indigenous people and Muslims. A government can then act severely to control these perceived threats, so distracting attention from the ideology whose partiality creates frustration.

If this is so the response to racial discrimination must be primarily to build an economic and political framework based on respect for the human dignity of each person, and on the understanding that the economic order must serve the good of all, particularly the most disadvantaged.

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