To get a new perspective, sometimes, it is necessary to think outside the frame and, perhaps, even get out of the country, if needed. I used to have an African American student in my research lab in the USA. During her senior year, she decided to quit the lab and the university, as she had found out that she got pregnant. I was little disappointed. Not only that she was on the verge of finishing her research project but if she continued one more semester she would have been graduating as well. She threw away all that. What a pity!
I wanted to know why. Not looking like I was prying into her issues, I asked her timidly, “Mary (name changed) why did you get pregnant? Look at your situation. You are unmarried and pregnant with a man who has no intention of either marrying you or supporting your baby. You have no real job, and it is tough to be a single parent. On the top of all this, you may not even be able to finish your college, which is vital to get a good job. Knowing all this and being an educated woman, why did you do it! Why did you choose this path?”
Her answer still rings in my ears. She said it’s the attitude! It is the value system. It’s the culture. No big deal. Her mother was single when she was conceived. A couple of her aunts had been in a similar situation, so do some of her friends and neighbors. Thus, it does not come to her as a surprise. But it is a shock to me.
This is not an isolated story. Statistically, a staggering 67% of the black women who gave birth are unmarried! More than 50% of black men and women are never married. Although blacks make up only 14.5% of the population, they constitute around 21% of the total prison population – with drugs possessions, robbery and murder as significant offences. Similar disparaging statistics abound in other human development indicators like education, healthcare, poverty, etc., as well. Black community falls behind the national average on almost every developmental metric.
Despite billions of dollars pumped into education, healthcare and child support, in the form of Pell grants, affirmative action, special black colleges, etc., the failure of the black community to rise to the national standards is discouraging. It is easy and, perhaps, comes without any effort to attribute the backwardness of black community to the historical injustices which happened to them, like slavery, racism, segregation, etc.
However, asserting that these discriminations alone can explain everything that is wrong with today’s black community is an intellectual dishonesty and plainly wrong. It does not mean that there is no racism or oppression. On the contrary, systemic racism is real, operational and must be dealt with at both the government and the societal levels. It’s a continuous struggle.
No, these failures have much deeper roots. They are personal failings, lack of proper value system, breakdown of family structure, peer pressure and the political parties that exploit these communities and blinded intellectuals who recite endlessly recycling of clichéd ideas and explanations and offer no real solutions.
Now consider another oppressed community. They were persecuted for thousands of years, driven out of their homeland. With no place of their own; they had spread throughout the world. Wherever they went, hatred followed them. Millions were killed in a genocidal attempt as late as in the 1940s. Yes, you guessed it right; I am talking about the Jewish people.
Despite these difficulties, Jewish community thrived in every society. Jews make up less than 3 per cent of the USA population, but they have made up more than 20 per cent of the Forbes 400 list of the world’s wealthiest people. Not only in wealth but science as well, they were very successful; 30% per cent of Noble Prize winners were Jewish.
Significant numbers of Jews are professionals such as doctors, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs, and entertainers. Why are they so successful? Among several factors that contributed, everyone agrees that Jewish community puts heavy emphasis on personal responsibility, education and hard work. In other words, it is the culture.
It’s true that one cannot compare slavery to religious persecution, and racism to anti-Semitism. But suffering is suffering, and oppression is oppression. How the communities cope with these atrocities matter and offer clues to the solutions.
Not convinced? Consider another group of somewhat privileged people. These are White and Protestants. In other words, they do not suffer from the same debilitating factors such as racism and religious persecution. Even so, these otherwise privileged white underclass, often labeled as hillbillies, white-trash or red necks, spread throughout the United States, suffer from the similar backwardness as that of African Americans.
Also, because they are privileged (read non-minority), they have minimal governmental support. Most of them are marginalised, poor, and under-educated. Many have broken families. Once again, the culture plays a huge role in understanding their current status.
This is not to say one culture is somehow superior to others. It is not about the religion or which God or gods one prays to either. No. It is to recognise that certain universal values, and cultural traits that are vital for the upward mobility of the individual, family and the community. Not blame-the-rich, blame-the-privileged and other over-used explanations, which often lead to divisions without offering real solutions.
Recognising the importance of these cultural traits several sociologists, political thinkers and social activists are changing the way the government and NGOs tackle social ills such as poverty, drug problems and inequality in a way that makes a real difference.
It is easy to see some parallels between these communities in the USA and backward castes, upper castes and poor upper castes in India. Of course, each culture is different, and each community faces a unique set of challenges and opportunities. However, as noted earlier, human beings across the globe have more in common than otherwise.
In this regard, the writings of Prof Ilaiah and ilk not only fall short, but are outright divisive. It’s not that they have not recognised the importance of culture, they do. But they use that understanding to pitch one community against other. Rarely, do they emphasise on personal responsibility and hard work. Their stunning lack of global perspective on human development makes their writings even more myopic.
They have not yet come to terms with the idea that the world is moving away from agriculture and even manufacturing economy to the knowledge-based one. In this post-modern world, the government role is changing from job-provider to opportunity facilitator. Private entrepreneurs and innovators mainly drive the economy. This change is inevitable and unstoppable.
At this crucial turning point, the universal traits like education, hard work and personal accountability become even more significant. Blaming this caste or that caste for their success does not mask one’s own failings. Instead, it provides an opportunity for divisive politics to take deeper roots. It does not mean we should not address the exploitation and oppression of underprivileged.
We must address them, no question about it. Not with half-heartedness and divisive ideas, but with emphasis on equal opportunity and treatment and collective progress in mind. Divisions come easy. To stay and progress together takes effort. (Writer is an Associate Professor at McNeese State University, US)