15 June 2020 No Comments by The Northern Standard


Why is racism such an apparently widespread problem when virtually everyone in society would act with anger and outrage if it were suggested that they were racist? Questions like these are constantly debated but every so often something happens which brings the problem at their core to the forefront of public attention and discussion. Such an event occurred in Minnesota in the USA on May 25 when a 46-year-old African American man, George Floyd, died while being arrested. His alleged offence was the nonviolent one of tendering counterfeit money when purchasing cigarettes.

Video footage emerged on social media of the arresting officer pinning Mr Floyd to the ground by placing his knee on his neck for almost nine minutes, ignoring the suspect’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe. Mr Floyd’s death was the catalyst for a wave of protest which spread throughout the United States and then across the rest of the globe. Rallies in support of the Black Lives Matter cause were held in Monaghan, Cavan and throughout Ireland last Saturday. In America the protests have had violent dimensions.

The use of force by US police against the black community has smouldered as an issue for some time and Mr Floyd’s death was a potent accelerant of the latent tensions – as well as a facilitator of the sort of opportunistic looting and destruction, and heavyhanded policing response, that attaches to public demonstrations of protest which excite anger in the people and fear in the authorities.

Watching these events from afar, it might be easy to regard them as someone else’s problem. But the issue of racial tension and the sense of grievance and exclusion among minority communities which undoubtedly explain the passion and vehemence of the American wave of protests are on our doorstep too. Testimony by Lincoln Falana at Saturday’s antiracism rally in Monaghan Town that he and other people of colour have been met with racially oriented abuse and discrimination in the local area is unsettling evidence of this.

As we don’t have openly proud and practising racists in our communities, where does such behaviour come from and who is responsible? Some of the offence given to people of different ethnicity or racial origin to the majority is undoubtedly inadvertent, no less wounding for that but founded on ingrained habits or attitudes which, while patronising and ethnocentric, do not have malice at their core. But other behaviours are more considered, subtle and sinister, reflective of actively racist attitudes and behaviours that have retreated to the shadowy margins in recent times but pick their moments to reemerge and rely on the assumptions that their targets will be too marginalised, powerless or frightened to challenge and report them.

These offensive behaviours, both the inadvertent and deliberate, are facilitated when they are not confronted and objected to by the untargeted who happen to witness them. Never was there better application than to racism for John Stewart Mill’s wisdom: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Education is sometimes suggested as the most efficacious racism remedy.

In a statement to our newspaper this week, Senator Robbie Gallagher makes a good argument for resources to be deployed at the earliest stages of the education process, even at pre-school, to prevent the weed taking root in the fertile formative ground of our children’s minds. The Senator points to recent studies indicating that children as young as three could already have started to develop prejudicial attitudes and behaviours. Senator Gallagher is on the right track to some extent. Racially ignorant or intolerant household attitudes can be inherited easily and early by the next generation. But our young people are often our best ambassadors for racial and ethnic harmony through the open way they befriend and decline to judge. And it is the older young, such as the people who organised Saturday’s Monaghan rally and those who participated in Monaghan Institute’s recent Week Against Racism, who are manning the front line of this battle with an energy and bravery to put more senior generations to shame.

Banishing racism is as much if not more a matter for adult education in its widest form than merely the concern of the school system. And in this regard it is deeply regrettable that the manner in which we treat asylum seekers arriving in this country continues to be so woefully flawed. The faults of the Direct Provision system are legion and they have rightfully come under renewed critical focus during the solidarity actions in this country for the Black Lives Matter campaign.

More grievous than the individual flaws are their collective effect of isolating and stigmatising people who have come here from all over the world to seek refuge. The Direct Provision system seems structured to the diktats of a conspiracy of silence. Obstacles both physical and regulatory have been constructed to prevent the stories of the people at the heart of the system being made known – simply put, it is very difficult to get to talk to these people, get to know them as human beings and begin to understand something of their culture and history and aspirations.

Difference dissipates in dialogue. Would the people in various parts of Ireland who have objected so strenuously to asylum seekers being housed in their midst have been so motivated if they had first been introduced to and given an opportunity to get to know the people who wanted to live among them?

The first step along the path to some of the greatest evils of our time has been to brand certain groups of people as other than ourselves. ‘Other’ soon becomes ‘less than’, and when people are seen as ‘less than’ they can be abused with impunity. Racism, a problem more than skin deep, thrives on such labels. And the Direct Provision system attaches them to people with casual thoughtlessness. Its reform or replacement would go a long way to honouring the principles that are inspiring so many people to rally to the anti-racism cause at the present time.

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