Thursday, October 02, 2003
The unrelenting, daily racial categorisation of people by the government is one of the most divisive forces in American society. It is constantly emphasising our minor differences, in opposition to our better instincts that tell us to seek our common interests and common values.
There is one objective that should be common to all societies: developing and sustaining a sense of unity. No matter how advanced, this objective is the centrepiece of a stable society.
As societies become more open to those from various backgrounds, the question of how to merge changing demographics into a common civic identity becomes increasingly problematic. Nowhere is that challenge more apparent than in California, one of the most multi-ethnic and "multi-racial" populations in the world.
Throughout history, government-imposed racial classifications have been used to divide people and to set them against each other. The slave owners and segregationists knew it; the Nazis knew it when they labelled European Jews a separate and inferior "race"; American judges knew it when they had to determine if Asians or part-Asians were white or non-white for the purposes of naturalisation.
Actually British history offers an interesting reference point for this. Unbelievable as it may seem to us today but just a century ago the Irish were considered to be a race separate from the British, a fact again that underlines that racial categorisations are made by governments for the advancement of particularist interests.
If approved, Proposition 54 will return California to the journey of becoming a society in which "Race has no place in American life or law", and where all of our people may some day see themselves as members of an extended human family, undivided by "race", the colour of our skin, the origin of our ancestors or the country of our birth.
The only race that will matter is the human race and the only identity of which the government will take account is our standing as "Americans".
I think that ultimately this is where we are also going to have to start heading in Britain. In the Southeast we already have the most racially, ethnically and culturally diverse population in Europe. No offence to those of you who live in other parts of our beautiful isle, but we all now that it's the South East where the nation's future is being made. And that future is always spreading to the rest of the country. Connerly notes one big factor that undermines the race classification system is that of intermarriage and mixed offspring. In California one in nine children are of mixed parentage. In the UK it is already one in eight.
While this is a good argument to remember when arguing about the different schemes of affirmative action occasionally being debated for Britain, there is a problem here, that a colour-blind politics fails to address: racism. That may look paradoxical at first but the kind of racism I am talking about is of a more subtle kind. Modern day Britain has no legal constraints on the success for people from minority backgrounds, but at the same time we can't pretend that there aren't race problems in Britain. For example how come that in Brixton virtually all people who are stopped, searched and arrested by the police are black, while the police itself is virtually exclusively white? Of course there are many complex reasons for this disparity but I am absolutely sure that race and racism are part of it. The problem in this respect is surely that the police are seen as racist and consequently black Brixtonians (is that the right word?) are deterred from entering the police force. The absence of black faces in the thin blue line in Brixton then reinforces the impression that the police are racist. I could go on in explaining other ways in which there is a vicious circle here, but I think my point is clear. The questions we have to address are whether a colour-blind policy will eventually remove this problem and whether there is anything government could do in case this doesn't happen or simply to speed this process up. What we need is an alternative to institutionalised affirmative action, an alternative that both maintains liberal principles of colour-blind justice, while also managing to help the advancement of individuals from a disadvantaged minority background. If only I know what that would look like . . . .