Monday, January 17, 2011

The Wealth of Our Nation

Today was going to be a post about talking with my grandmother, but a timely post relating to it being the observed anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth seemed appropriate. Prompting this topic change, a friend of mine from high school, whom I believe is a German currently living abroad in London, posted this article reflecting on the state of the races in public education. To sum it up, we are more segregated today than we were at the time of King's assassination, we are not doing enough to reverse this trend, and there is evidence that this is quite harmful to our education system.

Fortunately for you, my dear reader, I abhor doom and gloom calls to action. If forced to confront something horrible, say in an ad on Hulu, I am quite likely to make an internal joke about it in order to maintain my sense of self worth, such as it is, in the face of tragedy that I feel I can do nothing meaningful to ameliorate. So, rather than lament about racism in modern America, let us look at the richness that we have available to us.

It should not be news to you that the US has a long and sordid history of inter-racial interaction. To hit some lowlights, there was the acquisition of our geographical location from people who happened to already be living here, the enslavement and subsequent suppression of a rather large people group, concentration (I mean internment) camps, eugenics, and human experimentation, to list the worst ones to come to mind. However, keep in mind that our nations particularly vile history is, in big part, due to our rich diversity in people groups.

There is a correlation between how uniform a nation's population is and how much unrest it experiences. From this fact one can draw one of two conclusions, segregationists are justified and we ought try to keep races separate, or we here in the United States have a great opportunity to learn to coexist, a skill critically important as the world's far flung regions become more closely intertwined. Since I am not so much for segregation, I favor the latter.

How unique is our situation? I didn't look through the entire CIA world fact book, but here are some highlights. The UK, which appears to have a much more urbane view on racial equality, about 90% European. The data for France is less clear, since they have laws forbidding racial identification in census data, but working it out from a Wikipedia article, I estimate their European population to be at least 90% of the total. Germany is also at about 90%, as is Russia. In Sweden, that Western European socialist paradise, Swedes and Finns already make up 90% of the population between them. Consider the US, which is only 80% white, and here even the white population is more diverse than in a typical Western European nation. It is only natural that we have rockier racial relations, although this does not absolve us the responsibility to work through them.

The only other country with an 80-20 split that I found, South Africa. There was one nation that had an even smaller majority population, which was Canada. While we all no Canada is pretty much a Utopian dream state, another factor in their rather low atrocity to racial diversity ratio is their cultural view on race. Consider that, of the 34% of their population that is non-European, 26% is listed as mixed background. In the US only about 1.5% is listed as mixed background, and I seriously doubt these two numbers are measuring the same population.

In the US there has been a strong push to fit into neat categories, much to the detriment of inter-racial families, not that there weren't other factors mitigating against them. Consider our president, often called the first black president of the US. Calling him the first interracial president of the US somehow lacks the same kick in our society. Furthermore, the US census does not have a separate neat category for Latina/Latino peoples, so they tend to be in that 80% white. If one considers them to be, in some way, separate from white Americans, then it is projected that by the year 2050 whites will be a minority in the US, albeit the largest one at slightly less than 50%, but a minority nonetheless.

But wait, which nation has the low atrocity to racial diversity ratio, that's right, Canada. I think that there is much to be copied from their approach. Continuing the move away from a dichotomous classification of one's racial identity is an important step. If we cannot acknowledge that two races can equitably coexist inside one person, it seems a grim potent for their peaceful cohabitation of our nation. To take this a step further, I think that it is important to deprioritize racial affiliation. This does not mean ignoring unpleasant facts like the disproportional poverty levels in one people group over another, but rather examining if confounding factors like economic class of one's parents are better indicators than race. In short, I worry about our future if we continue to wrestle with the problem of inter-racial relations, but if we reframe the question as one of intra-humanitarian relations, keeping in mind the historic context which includes race without giving it undue significance, then I think we can forge ahead to a better future.


Karen said...

I would like to read a post about you talking to our grandmother. I hope that that is coming in the future. However, you're right, this was an appropriate post for the day.

From my experience in the education world, I think that the current paradigm is that socio-economic barriers (rather than racial ones) are what keep our students and general population somewhat segregated. However, probably due to our history, people who are white are far more likely to be in a privileged position in society. As one of my professors pointed out, part of the reason that people don't really want to level out the playing field in education is because there aren't enough "good paying jobs" to go around. Therefore, if we keep poorer people undereducated and poor, our offspring have much less competition for a good job.

I think that ideally, and not even unrealistically, we'd value the jobs that the "working class" do. It is because of the hard work done by poorer people that the rich get richer. It is not unfair to anybody to pay farm workers, restaurant servers, supermarket checkers, etc a decent wage with benefits. It is simple acknowledgement that what they do is important, even if it doesn't require a college degree, and we appreciate their hard work and their dignity as a human.

How this will happen, I don't know, but I think it would be amazing if it did. :)

I think that this holiday is great because we can celebrate some accomplishments that have been made, but I think it is equally important to recognize that it is still important to work on the issues that keep part of our population oppressed despite their efforts. There are still beautiful ideals and dreams to strive for that Martin Luther King Jr. made known while he was around.

Kenny said...

I plan to write such a post during this week sometime. Maybe some more MLKJ stuff first though.

I would say that socio-economic background have a stronger correlation with future performance than race. However, socio-economic background and race are correlated with each other, so it is something to keep in mind. In regard to good paying jobs, I am of the opinion that an educated workforce creates good paying (by which I mean living wage, maybe not extravagant) jobs. On a more philosophical note, purposefully squishing the oppressed is the classic example of the dehumanization of the oppressor.

I'm not one to espouse communism as a feasible large scale system, but I think a shift in the "American Dream," from getting rich to getting a happy life where one has enough, would go a long way to straightening out our swiftly tilting system. Sort of the theme of your blog I guess ;)

I have heard MLKJ day described as a time we get off not to sleep in (ok, partially to sleep in) but to work on making his dream closer to reality.

elfarmy17 said...

I always thought my town was pretty diverse, especially for a little Southern city. But we have Research Triangle Park nearby, which is always bringing in loads of people from far and wide.
That being said, my church has a grand total of one non-white family that attends on a regular basis.
Our school board recently voted to have "neighborhood schools," which basically means that you go to the school nearest you, instead of being bussed farther away in favor of socio-economic diversity. So they basically voted for segregation. Our county made the front page of The Washington Post for that, and we might lose our accreditation from some important place because of it. I don't know what would happen in that case. It doesn't help that our new superintendent is a retired General who has a grand total of 18 months' experience in education.

elfarmy17 said...

Oh, HA. I didn't read the article you linked to until today...and that's my county they're talking about. Oops. Me here thinking I'm contributing something to the

elfarmy17 said...

My county made it onto the Colbert Report with this issue:

Kenny said...

Wow, your county is famous! Being ridiculed by Steven Colbert on public TV may not be the type of fame one seeks, but it is still fame. I have to admit that I grew up in a geographically segregated school system, so that seems like the normal system to me. But my county was fairly uniformly poor, the pillars of our community were solid members of the lower middle class, so perhaps it didn't make quite as much of a difference.