“We must become bigger than we have been: more courageous, greater in spirit, larger in outlook. We must become members of a new race, overcoming petty prejudice, owing our ultimate allegiance not to nations but to our fellow men within the human community.” ~ Haile Selassie
As a teacher of Geography (the study of man and his environ- ments), I endeavored early-on with each new class to teach my high school students the difference between race, national origin, and ethnicity. It was an easy lesson to teach, but it was not an easy lesson to learn for many of my students. They were prejudiced, as are we all, acculturated by regional, local and familiar traditions, beliefs and practices. And prejudices are difficult to overcome; they must be unlearned.
Beliefs, quite often, are based less on facts and more on feelings — feelings that we acquire early from family members’ attitudes, teachings, and from our own personal experiences. No one is born prejudiced. We are taught to be prejudiced. If, when we are young, we are told that we should not trust others who look and behave differently, all it takes is one negative experience with someone of a different race or ethnicity to cement that admonition psycho- logically. And, if that first encounter is with someone who was told the same thing, the encounter will surely be negative. All creatures, humans included, are suspicious by nature. “It’s eat or be eaten,” a defensive/survival mechanism.
So, what is race? There are different opinions. But to deal with the issue of racial prejudice, I believe we need to have a common understanding of what it is. Most of my students here in Texas, thought that to be Mexican was to be racially distinctive. It’s not. Mexican is a nationality or a national origin. When I was growing up soon after the end of WWII, anyone with almond shaped eyes, black hair and a distinctive tint to darker skin was a Jap until they proved otherwise. And to us, Japs (persons of Japanese national and or ethnic origin) were a separate race from us. To this day, in Singapore, which is a very diverse nation/city-state ethnically, people of different national origins and ethnicities, Chinese, Malay, Indian, are considered to be different races — this according to my daughter-in-law who is Singaporean and still lives there with my son and new granddaughter. She is not unlike most people I know in that she is very sensitive about the subject of race. However, she is very much not a racist. We have that in common.
According to LiveScience, “Race is associated with biology, whereas ethnicity is associated with culture. In biology, races are genetically distinct populations within the same species; they typically have relatively minor morphological and genetic differences. Although all humans belong to the same species (Homo sapiens), and even to the same sub-species (Homo sapiens sapiens), there are small genetic variations across the globe that engender diverse physical appearances, such as variations in skin color.”
For more on this and how this might have come into being, I would recommend the book, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, in his 1775 treatise, The Natural Varieties of Mankind, proposed five major races: the Caucasoid race (including the Abyssinians, later designated as Ethiopid Mediterraneans), the Mongoloid race, the Ethiopian race (later termed Negroid), the American Indian race, and the Malayan race, but he did not propose any hierarchy among the races. He also noted in his treatise the graded transition in appearances from one group to adjacent groups and suggested that, “One variety of mankind does so sensibly pass into the other, that you cannot mark out the limits between them.”
Why Blumenbach was Wrong
The morphological differences between what we think of as races is not largely evident in our DNA. For example, according to LiveScience, recent genetic studies show that skin color may drastically change in just a few generations as a result of environmental influences. This substantiates my belief in environmental determinism, although the belief has been associated in the past with institutionalized racism and eugenics. There is even a popular evolutionary theory that early humans living in the northern climes of Europe grew progressively lighter-skinned over time. This is because, or so the theory goes, that lighter skin favored the absorption of greater amounts of vitamin D, this vitamin being necessary for the development/growth of stronger bones. Interestingly, the DNA of two humans chosen at random generally varies by less than 0.1 percent. This is less genetic variation than other types of hominids (such as chimpanzees and orangutans). So, it is my belief that we are all members of the same race, the human race.
It is truly unfortunate that we humans discriminate based on less than 0.1 percent on what differentiates us biologically, but we do. We have so much more in common than we have different. But this difference is what we can see, and human judgment is readily made based on sight, our dominant sense — our defensive instinct. You look different, therefore you are a threat.
The Reeducation Process
Racial and ethnic prejudice are forms of bigotry. Overcoming it in societies is not an easy thing to do — in fact, it has yet to be achieved anywhere to my knowledge. It may never be overcome because it resides within the individual heart. The U.S. and Singapore have made great strides in the past socially engineering to this end. But in both countries, bigotry remains a problem. People have to really want to live in harmony with others. Many do not and some never will.
In the U.S., the desegregation of the military by President Truman in 1948 and that of public schools in 1954 with the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. The Board of Education decision were huge steps in the right direction. Then came the Civil Rights Act in 1960 followed by President Johnson’ Affirmative Action Executive Order in 1965 . But a recent Government Accounting Office (GAO) study indicates that many school districts in the U.S. are every bit as much segregated as they were before 1960. School of Choice, which is most popular in Southern, more conservative states, legally redirects state tax dollars from integrated public schools to charter schools where families with the means to transport their children to and from school can have them attend classes wherein the students all look pretty much alike. This is an end-around to school desegregation.
Affirmative Action initiatives now, bowing to blow-backs claiming reverse discrimination against white America, have pretty much run their course. Discrimination against minorities, to include women, Muslims and LGBTQ persons, despite laws and executive orders at the national level are re-surging.
In my opinion, only in the federal government in the U.S., in particular, the military services where desegregation and the abolishment of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell pay dividends to maintaining order and increasing force effectiveness, is true progress against discrimination being made. In the federal government, rules can be enforced.
On the surface, Singapore seems like a perfectly egalitarian state where residents of all ages, religious creeds, and races peacefully coexist. I know, I have been there and have experienced the welcoming attitude of all three of its major ethnic groups. I have experienced too how ex-patriots from the U.S., Australia and other nations are welcomed and can integrate readily. This does not mean, however, that discrimination in Singapore doesn’t exist. It does, but Singaporeans cannot openly discriminate, this according to my daughter-in-law. Discrimination exists, it’s just not openly visible. But Singaporeans of all races/ethnicities (call it what you like) have equitable access to education and job opportunities. The country operates as a meritocracy where talent and determination is prized above race and connections. As a result, the country has a vigorous and very strong economy. It ranks as one of the world’s wealthiest nations on a per capita basis, and there is a very low crime rate.
Unlike in the U.S., were civil liberties permit open displays of bigotry (as Donald Trump’s current presidential campaign attests), Singapore’s government is quite different. Its restrictive legislature and strict laws such as the Sedition Act have all but silenced debates on matters of race, ethnicity, and religion. This makes it very difficult to accurately assess discrimination issues there. But, on the positive side, thanks to Singapore’s limited space and a growing population, it’s government has long since employed a public housing program which forces integration. People have to get along with each other. About 85% of Singaporeans today live in public housing estates . These estates, managed by the government, have an enforced ethnic quota. Maximum proportions are set for the residents from various ethnic groups in these blocks of apartments. This helps to “prevent the formation of racial enclaves and promotes ethnic integration,” this according to the government’s website. Sales of a new or resale apartment are not approved to a buyer from a particular ethnic group if it would lead to that group’s limit being exceeded.
Regardless of what we in the West, the U.S. in particular, might think about Singapore’s forced integration program, it has leveled the playing field for its diverse citizenry. People do not have the freedom to discriminate, not openly anyway.
So, comparing the state of efforts to combat discrimination in these two very different countries, what can we learn?
- Societies/organizations are stronger and more productive when citizens put aside their racial, ethnic, homophobic (what have you) prejudices.
- People will not willingly forsake the prejudicial feelings they have, the feelings and attitudes that they have developed from early childhood on.
- No matter what initiatives societies’ leaderships employ to ensure equity among its’ citizens, progress requires long-term commitment and resolve to counter socially-conservative measures to prevent change.
- Learning to be bigoted or not to be bigoted in whatever way must begin at an early age. Parents wanting their children to grow up without prejudicial attitudes against people of other races/ethnicities, beliefs or life-styles must take proactive measures.
If we, as a people – the whole of humanity which inhabits this earth, regardless of nationality, faith or ethnic group, are ever to know lasting peace and equity in prosperity, we must come together. We must persevere to combat the forces of evil within us so that the next generation might not just live better — but be better.