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MINORITY RIGHTS [image, unknown] Redressing the balance

[image, unknown]

[image, unknown] Glen Williams
New Internationalist
[image, unknown] Editor: Glen Williams

 Illustration Sam Whitehead
The Denial of Minority Rights

‘Equal rights for everyone’ – we’re all in favour of that. But special rights
for minorities? We’re not so sure. Glen Williams argues that the world’s minorities
need special rights today to have any hope of equal rights tomorrow.

QUESTION: ‘When is a minority not a minority?’

ANSWER: ‘When it’s a privileged elite.’

LOOK at the front cover of this magazine and you’ll see two groups - the Blues and the Reds. Imagine they’re two ethnic groups inhabiting the same country. Will the Blues - who are more than 80 per cent of the population - dominate the Reds? Not necessarily, If toe minority Reds have control of the armed forces, the wealth and the political power, they’re likely to dominate the Blues. In that case they wouldn’t be described as a ‘minority’, but as the dominant group in the country. If the boot were on the other foot, however, and the Blues had all the power, they’d be seen as the dominant group and the Reds dismissed as a mere ‘minority’. The semantics of minority-majority relationships are complex, and we’re not taking this excursion any further.

For this magazine is not about minorities as such, It’s about power, and how it affects the lives of identifiably different groups of people, These groups are mostly numerical minorities which are disadvantaged and deprived in some way. But their small numbers are not the cause of their deprivation. History has seen many instances of a small but aggressive group ousting the original majority from power and finally outnumbering them through genocide, immigration and rapid population growth.

To say a group of people are a minority in numbers tells us nothing about its members’ position in society - whether they’re rich or poor, respected or ostracised. And it tells us nothing about the group’s power. The amount of power a group has determines everything about its members’ lives, including the rights which they claim and enjoy, Some minorities have successfully claimed extraordinary rights including, at times, the right to rule over others. The British in India, French-speaking nobles in Czarist Russia and Genghis Khan’s Mongolian warriors in China are just a few examples, The minority white group in South Africa still maintains the right to rule the black majority, Doubtless the white South Africans have their problems but they bear little resemblance to those of beleagured minorities such as the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Tigreans in Ethiopia or the Palestinians in Lebanon.

In this magazine we use the word ‘minority’ as short-hand for a group of people who are treated unequally because they are different, either physically or culturally, from the dominant group (the ‘majority’). Numbers do have some relevance: the fewer there are the more easily they can be controlled and kept in line. But minority deprivation has its origins in lack of respect, not in lack of numbers.

So this magazine is also about discrimination - how and why it happens. Discrimination against minorities takes many forms. It normally involves stereotyping the minority race, religion, sex, culture or nation as either inherently inferior or dangerous - or both. The end result: the minority is consigned to the bottom of the heap and kept there. North American culture, for example, has two main stereotypes of the ‘redskin’. There’s the ‘noble redman’, the primitive living in harmony with nature but inevitably doomed to capitulate before a ‘superior’ form of civilisation (and fire-power). And there’s the sneaky, guileful savage who is dishonest, treacherous and just can’t be trusted. You’ve seen such bad guys in the movies. They’re the ones who, after being invited into the fort to receive gifts and smoke the peace pipe, pull Winchesters from under their blankets and murder all the trusting white settlers and soldiers.

Stereotyping provides spurious justification for discriminating against people who are different from the norm. Many members of minorities respond by trying to give up their own identities and assimilating as far as possible with the majority, Others opt for integration, which allows them to retain token amounts of their own culture, But many minorities reject both these alternatives as unjust and unworkable, demanding instead the right to various forms of cultural, economic or political self-determination.

What this means in practice depends on local conditions. In Britain it means, for example, allowing Moslems to pray at their workplace during the day; allowing Sikh men to wear their turbans at work and while riding motor-bikes; allowing Indian children to wear traditional clothes and to study an Indian language (alongside English) and Indian culture at school. In Australia it means allowing Aboriginal communities to run their own schools and local health services, (There are now around 30 Aboriginal-run health schemes in Australian towns and rural areas.) In Canada it means French as an official language alongside English - and both English- and French-speakers learning each others’ language. And for many minorities - such as the Eritreans, the Palestinians, many of Canada’s Quebecois and some of Britain’s Scots and Welsh - it means the right to political independence.

The New Internationalist does not subscribe to the notion that minorities have an automatic right to secede from the state to which they belong. Apart from the harsh realities of the power politics involved, the splitting-up of many states might well be against the interests of both the minority and the majority groups. If, for example, Quebec achieved independence in the next few years, could both it and the two geographically separated pieces of Canada still maintain their political and economic independence of the United States? Probably not. Would an independent Tamil state alongside the rest of Sri Lanka be politically and economically viable? Again, it seems unlikely.

But often the case in favour of various degrees of political, economic or cultural self-determination is overwhelming. There will never be peace in the Middle East until the Palestinian people, now dispersed around various countries in the region, have the right to political self-determination. Eritrea is another case where only political independence seems likely to bring a long and bloody war to an end.

But what about all the intermediate cases, for example, the native peoples who recognise the impossibility of going it alone on the international stage but are calling for economic and cultural self-determination? Their claims usually centre on the issue of land rights.

Much lip service is paid to the principle of the special rights of indigenous people to ancestral lands. Yet in practice these ‘rights’ are almost invariably circumvented or simply trampled on whenever they clash with the short-term economic interests of the majority, So India’s adivasis are pushed out of their forests to make way for mining companies, timber contractors and dams for hydroelectric schemes. Brazil’s Amerindians are decimated as the forests on which their lives and cultures depend are destroyed and the land turned into cattle ranches. Australia’s Aboriginals, New Zealand’s Maoris and North America’s Indians have all had to retreat before the relentless advance of white farmers, pastoralists and mining companies,

When people are dispossessed of their ancestral land it is not just their economic base that is lost. Without the unifying bond of the land, their culture and group identity disintegrate, leaving them rootless. The imposed culture and values of the dominant group often exact a heavy toil of disease, suicides, alcoholism and criminality. What remains is a deep sense of injustice mixed with bitterness. Listen to Australian Aborigine Kevin Gilbert: ‘Aboriginal land was taken by force, in the face of bitter resistance, illegally and without payment or compensation. The Aboriginal cry for land rights remains unheard in most of Australia and so far where some acknowledgement has been made it’s not much more than a token. And yet land is the basis of Aboriginal life and of Aboriginal identity,’

For Australia’s Aboriginals, and for other native peoples, land rights are the key to regaining some control over their lives. But although the cry for land rights has gathered strength over the past decade, there has still been precious little tangible progress. Meanwhile, Aboriginals continue to live as an appallingly disadvantaged group outside the charmed circle of affluent white Australian society. Compare these ‘human rights’ of Aboriginals with those of their white compatriots:

. The right to education: Whites are at least 12 times more likely than Aboriginals to be educated beyond the age of 15.

. The right to work: Aboriginals are at least four times more likely than whites to be unemployed. They receive low-status, low-paid manual jobs, and are often exploited by being underpaid for work in sub-standard conditions.

. The right to health: Aboriginal children are four times more likely to die before the age of 12 months than white children. Average life expectancy for Aboriginals in New South Wales (the only state for which reliable figures are available) is 52 years - 20 years less than whites and equivalent to that of India.

Many Australians sincerely believe that ‘equal rights’ exist for everyone in their country. But clearly some people are more ‘equal’ than others.

Cartoon by Stauber Britain’s black minority, although much better-off than Australia’s black population, is also caught up in a web of deprivation and discrimination. The government White Paper Racial Disadvantage (1975) depicts ‘a cycle of cumulative disadvantage’ in which ‘job opportunities, educational facilities, housing and environmental conditions are all poor’; consequently black children are growing up ill-equipped to deal with the difficulties facing them. ‘The wheel then comes full circle, as the second generation find themselves trapped in poor jobs and poor housing. If an element of racial discrimination enters in, then an entire group of people are launched on a vicious downward spiral of deprivation.’ And there is no doubt, according to the Commission for Racial Equality, that racial discrimination remains a deep-seated grievance among black people in Britain. One in every two employers in Britain, according to the Commission’s 1982 Report, discriminates on racial grounds, and unemployment among blacks is twice as high as among whites,

The question is how to break the ‘downward spiral of deprivation’ in which so many minority groups are trapped.

An essential first step is to ‘load the law’ in favour of the disadvantaged group. This means more than mere finger-wagging gestures against overt acts of racial or other bias. It means positive discrimination to overcome generations of collective disadvantage. In practice, it means special rights to meet the special needs of minorities for access to education, training, jobs, housing and health services.

There’s nothing new, or radical, about this concept. For the past three decades India’s tribal people, the adivasis, have had a fixed share of parliamentary seats, jobs in the civil service and places in educational institutions. In the United States over the past two decades government agencies and many private employers and trade unions have promoted Affirmative Action - a programme which gives positive discrimination to ethnic minorities and women in education, training and jobs.

The root of the problem, however, is you and me. Most readers of New Internationalist - and most of the magazine’s staff - are part of the dominant majority. For all our protests that we would never discriminate, most of us have benefitted from inheriting an unfair advantage over a different race or other minority group. We control the land and its minerals, the schools and the universities, the housing and health services. We have all the best jobs. We determine society’s values and its legal system. We have a near monopoly of power.

We happily agree of course with the general principle of equal rights. But, with a nervous glance over our shoulder, we feel uneasy or downright hostile towards any proposal that might remove our cushion of unfair advantages, ‘What? Special rights for blacks/tribals/women/Maoris/Aboriginals/ Indians/Catholics? We’re in favour of equal opportunities, but not preferential treatment. That wouldn’t be fair.’

But fairness is a relative concept. It means nothing when two groups are already grossly unequal. The concept of special rights for disadvantaged minorities is simply a means of redressing the balance of social justice, Minorities need special rights now to have any hope of equality tomorrow.

At the white man's school, what are our children taught?
Are they told of battles our people fought,
Are they told of how our people died?
Are they told why our people cried?
Australia's true history is never read,
But the blackman keeps it in his head

Aboriginal poem from Bunji, December 1971.

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New Internationalist issue 128 magazine cover This article is from the October 1983 issue of New Internationalist.
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