19 July 2009

Racism, Tribalism, Nationalism, Patriotism

The United States of America has often been characterized as a virulently racist country. In many cases this characterization exists because of our own depiction in our own popular media (which much of the world watches) of our shameful past and sometimes even exaggeration of present-day racial attitudes (especially of the south.) Certainly some of this hand-wringing is justified, but I posit that, at least for youngest generation—Generation Y, we have really moved past this and, while electing a black president doesn't heal all wrongs, I think most of the rest of the world does recognize that we have truly turned a corner in race relations.

With this said, I think it is fair to examine the issue of racism in other countries, more specifically the problem of nationalism. Granted, Americans are very patriotic, to the point that many Americans naively consider all other countries vastly inferior in most regards, but it is not the same kind of nationalism or even tribalism seen elsewhere in the world. For one thing, we are not really a nation! We are a country made up of various nationalities and ethnicities to the point that we consider the word “nationally” synonymous with “citizenship.” I have been surprised to learn that in many countries, ethnic minorities are never considered “(country)-ians” regardless of how long their forefathers have shared the same territory with the “true” citizens of said country. By definition, anyone born inside to borders of the United States is automatically granted citizenship and—certainly by the second generation—no one would not consider their children as full-fledged Americans.

Nearly every ethic/national group in the world says something to the effect of: “we are the proud (blank) people, the ancient and noble race that once ruled over this entire area (insert greatest extent of borders) in a large, prosperous, and peaceful kingdom/empire, but then at another time were brutally oppressed by our evil neighbors, yet managed maintain our special cultural practices and identity.” Then they go on to list all kinds discoveries and inventions regardless of how tangential their countrymen’s contributions were. I trust that I don't have to try to explain how ridiculous this concept is, since you have to agree there is no people group in the world that is not proud of its progenitors and therefore does not say something like this!

This “us vs. them” rivalry is seen between similarly sized and advanced people groups—each of them claiming a certain measure of superiority. It is often rooted in language; the endonym of many nations and their language are derived from a word meaning “the true/real people.” This is not only the case of small tribes in remote jungles, but even the word “German”—for example—suggests that the old Germans (soft G) considered themselves as descendants of the true seed or germ of humanity. Likewise, exonyms are often derogatory; for example, in most Slavic languages the German language and people are referred to as some variant of “Nemski,” suggestive of someone who is mute (unable to speak or use words) as opposed to “Slavo” meaning “word” (please note, this happened many centuries ago, I am not saying modern nationals believe or even know this.) My point is that these cultural mythologies are so deeply ingrained that all but the most cosmopolitan consider them as fact.

Vicious Cycle
The more harmful nationalism/racism is that which oppresses already downtrodden minorities. In the USA this generally means blacks (who, actually, often have a longer history in this country) and Hispanic; in Western Europe it is immigrants (especially non-European); and in Eastern Europe it is the Roma (Gypsy) population that has lived among their countrymen for centuries without assimilating. I was surprised to discover that—even in as homogeneous place such as Japan—there is a minority group called the Burakumin, members of which are still discriminated against to this day based solely on their family names (and the lowly occupations their ancestors held.)

For most of my life, I have been against affirmative action, or any other policies that favors any group over another. Growing up, I naively thought that since I was presented with the same opportunities in school that many of my black classmates (and in many cases, their parents as well) seemingly purposefully rejected, that—collectively as the majority—I was no longer responsible for the well-being of this population. Even today, I am surrounded be people who believe we should immediately end (or, at least, drastically cut) all welfare and affirmative action programs. While this attitude is understandable in the proverbial (Aesop's Fable) “ant and grasshopper” context, I remind people that I have lived in such a country—where minorities are simply ignored—and it is not pretty: Roma villages and ghettos across eastern Europe are third-world communities within developing countries that benefit no one as they spiral downward into ever-worsening conditions.

The problem with this “it’s not my fault” attitude is that without external assistance these communities are never going to pull themselves out of the mire…by virtue of the fact they are already in this desperate situation. Then, due to the inherit hopelessness of this kind of situation, the logic of some follows a most disturbing conclusion: genocide.

What we often forget is the advantages we have from the family and community we grew up in. These advantages came from our parents, who read to us from an early age, imbibed us with a strong work ethic, and insisted we do well in school, the peers who challenged us academically, the older siblings and cousins who showed us the ropes to succeeding in high school and college, the friends with whom we competed for success throughout our educational and professional careers, and—most importantly—an expectation of success from nearly everyone, based solely on our background. Certainly we do see highly successful individuals come out of the most neglected communities, but these are rare exceptions. Just as most of us come from an average, middle class background that led us to become middle to upper-middle class citizens; the average, lower-class minority has little hope of moving up in society—there is simply no expectation of this happening, so it doesn’t happen. While this is sometimes manifest in actual prejudice/discrimination, more often the problem is just lowered expectation, even from within this disenfranchised community.

Certainly the most effective solutions could come from within these communities, members of which know best the intricacies and thinking of their own community and therefore are more influential than an outsider. Unfortunately, this rarely happens; there are just not enough of these people, and they are often not esteemed in their own community—they are frequently seen as having abandoned their culture by virtue of their discipline and success.

Another option to address these inequities is through private and religious-based charities. These are generally very effective, but are so small that they are only able to help a very few people in a few, select communities. Therefore—despite a general dislike of large and wasteful government programs—I must admit that the only solution for under-performing minority populations is the costly government and inter-governmental programs that just “keep their heads above water” with the hope of an eventual assimilation into the middle class.

I don’t want sound like the proverbial na├»ve liberal who thinks we just need to hold hands and sing Kumbaya around the campfire to make everything better. No, I am the cold, calculating MBA that is simply looking for the most beneficial outcome for all parties involved, because if my neighbors (both near and far) are richer and more educated, it benefits me as well (more consumers for my employer’s/industry’s products and less crime due to desperate situations.) Certainly countries, nationalities, and regions have various competitive advantages (meaning some are indeed more educated, some better at manufacturing, some at agriculture…and, of course, these advantages change as a nation develops), and this is exactly what makes global trade so successful (the old zero-sum game thinking has long ago been discredited.) This is why I am in favor of any policy that encourages free trade, free movement of people, intercultural exchange, and effective international development/aid.

I do not purport to have all the answers; I only write this—dear reader—to ask you to consider the following: why do you find pride in the accomplishments of your ancestors and countrymen, and what does it really matter; aren’t others just as proud of their heritage? Are you just a pawn being played by the propaganda of your country or ethnicity? What benefit do you derive from the suffering of other people? Even in this self-examination, don’t get lulled into the trap of thinking “I’m not as bad as those people; they are really prejudiced!” I readily admit that I also pre-judge strangers based solely on outward appearance—this is human nature, so let’s at least be aware of it. Despite my German ethnicity and American citizenship, I will only boast that I am Joel Froese, human being; resident of planet Earth.