Recent events have once again brought race relations in America into the media spotlight, continuing the now long record that exists of an endemic discrimination against minorities in the Land of the Free. From the other side of the world it is often only America’s best side that is seen and so it is all the more disturbing to find out that America has yet to come to terms with white elitism, that so many of the nation’s citizens are still disadvantaged simply because they have dark skin.
I am old enough to remember a time when America had only just begun to question the racial status quo of its culture. I can clearly remember the ‘Whites Only’ signs that defined the limits of social interaction and literally kept black people at the back of the bus on the journey through life. As America lurched towards a true equality for its citizens it began to seem as if the Western world was leaving behind its apartheid inclinations everywhere. The International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination tried to usher in an age of equality for all people so that the last in the decades of the 20th Century we truly began to believe that we had evolved past our ethnocentric world view.
In the 1970s I immigrated to Australia and my world view was expanded exponentially. The world that I had come from was your average white American family environment and I had arrived in arguably the most cosmopolitan society in the world. Here I was immediately thrown into a cultural mix made up of immigrants from 185 different countries and untold more unique cultures. On the surface it would seem that this has the potential for becoming a nightmare of racial tensions and imported conflicts but this is not so. In the same timeframe that has elapsed since America first began to move towards establishing a true racial equality, Australia has abandoned the White Australia Policy that had been adopted at its federation in 1901 and has achieved a genuine equality for all ethnic groups that is rigorously defended by strict anti-racial laws which are regularly enforced. To the outside world it has seemed that America has moved towards genuine universal equality for all of its citizens in that same period of time too. Black Americans have now achieved many of the highest offices in the land and Obama’s election seemed to herald an America that had put white elitism behind it. Review of the statistics and literature on the divide between white and black Americans paints a different picture altogether and it is almost as if nothing has changed in over thirty years.
In almost every area of American life whites have an obvious advantage with white males topping the list and who is advantaged and who is disadvantaged in America today still relates specifically to their race. Racism in America is a defense of white’s racial privilege and is based in an endemic organization of racial advantage. While the more liberal minded end of the cultural spectrum of American society were genuinely trying to redress the inequalities the shift in white protection of their cultural ascendancy became more covert and the exploitation of minorities took on a more subtle form.
Across the board white Americans have an advantage over minorities, earning higher incomes, paying more for commodities and offered fewer opportunities to better themselves. Because black Americans are paid more there is more money to pay whites, because banks offer less loans to black Americans there are more to hand out to white customers and charging black Americans more for their commodities allows them to be discounted to whites. With fewer opportunities the minorities in America often make up the lower end of the employment market and act as a buffer between the majority of white Americans and the bottom end of the job market. Because of America’s bi-polar racial view point cultural hegemony has been used to further marginalize specifically black Americans and the sum total of those influences is that the social divide between white and black is still no smaller today than it was twenty years ago.
In those same twenty years Australia has continued to absorb immigrants at a rate of about 0.6% of the population annually, around twice the rate that America does. The focus of the Australian Government’s immigration policies is on skills as the nation tries to attract more qualified people to come and live and work in the country. This means that the economic divide between the cultures in Australia are often less severe. The long history of multiculturalism in Australia also means that a large percentage of people that have been born in Australia, with full Australian citizenship, are of a non-Caucasian ethnicity.
There are still occasional instances of racial tension between immigrant groups here, usually from new arrivals that have brought pre-existing conflicts with them, but the ghettos and ‘Asian Invasion’ that right-wing groups have prophesied here for the past 40 years have never come about. In general Australia’s attitudes to ethnicity have matured into a philosophy that accepts that we all have different world views and which views any sort of racial vilification as a hideous outrage. Perhaps it is because everyone here, except the indigenous people, can be said to have come from somewhere else and that nobody is in a position to point the finger at anyone else. Even in the relations with Australia’s indigenous people the Australian Government is far in advance of the relationship that Uncle Sam has with American native peoples and native title laws in Australia have gone a long way towards redressing the wrongs that were done to the native Australians while Aboriginals have generally found their place in the middle classes with the rest of the majority of the population.
What are the motives for the continuation of the promotion of racial advantage in this way? Who has the most to gain? Obviously white middle class America is separated from the majority of life’s misfortunes by being socially located in a more comfortable situation but with 40% of black Americans now earning an income in the middle class bracket that cushion has become thinner. This social mobility of a minority group can be misconstrued as a threat to middle class existence that engenders an almost instinctually elitist response that is less about race and more about social status and security. The more fascist end of right wing politics twists this into an ideology of exclusionism that maintains the tension between black and white well beyond the time when that bi-polar racial divide is even an accurate ethnic demographic model of modern America.
Apart from the social and financial advantages of maintaining this bi-polar divide there are other factors that have contributed to its perpetuation. Foremost is education and a large factor in the success of Australia’s multicultural system is that it devotes a great deal of effort to promoting the advantages of having a multicultural society. For many of the people that come here the concept of an egalitarian equality like Australia’s is a huge culture shock in itself. The Racial Discrimination Act is also stressed in all official government communications so that new immigrants are made aware of their equal rights and their equal obligations to Australia. Everyone in Australia knows that discrimination in any form is not permitted and so ethnicity has become much less of an issue.
Another factor, one which doesn’t put the same pressure on the Australian economy as it does the American, is illegal immigration. Australia has very few illegal immigrants as it is almost inaccessible with the few that do arrive every year being picked up by the Royal Australian Navy as they cross the Timor Sea from Indonesia. America on the other hand has a huge problem with illegal immigrants that affects the economy as a whole. In many ways this disposable underclass of American society is used as a further barrier to any threat to the middle class’ social location. This exacerbates the cultural polarity by creating another pressure on society that can be, however wrongly, associated with ethnicity and misconstrued, mistakenly or otherwise, as a threat to racial advantage, usually under the banner of the American way of life.
America’s cultural perception of ethnicity as a black and white dichotomy seems to remain to be purged from the middle class psyche. It would appear that Americans are still struggling to see the world as it is rather than as they wish it to be. It is a self destructive ignorance to deny full equality to one part of your society and think that it won’t infringe upon the freedom and equality of all. Until America can resolve its bi-polar view of racism into a holistic interpretation of the facts of cultural differences it will continue to struggle to discover what all Americans have in common. It seems that Dr King’s dream in which a man is judged not by the color of his skin but by the contents of his character still hasn’t come to be shared by many of his countrymen.