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Racial discrimination in black and white

Racism is a major issue that confronts many countries, especially those dependent on migrants. While countries such as South Africa, Fiji, Malaysia and the Caribbean were destinations for indentured labour and hence racial abuse, many others have practiced workplace discrimination and social isolation based on race, colour and creed.

Racism has also been a political and social problem in New Zealand, raising its ugly head from time to time. Although the Bill of Rights, the presence of Human Rights Commission and other bodies have outlawed racism, it continues in practice in one form or the other.

Albert Persaud, a prominent National Health professional in London, has highlighted the prevalence of overt racism in post-war Britain in an article that appears in this Section. He has written about a recently published book that narrates the humiliation suffered by qualified Indian medical practitioners in England.

Indians who accuse fully developed countries such as Australia, New Zealand, UK, US and Canada of practicing racial discrimination are at times reminded of some home truths. India sets aside nearly half of all government jobs for members of ‘scheduled castes,’ ‘scheduled tribes’ and ‘other backward classes.’

The Malaysian Government allows only companies that set aside 30% of shares to ethnic Malays to be listed in the country’s stock exchange. Malays also get discounts on real estate, and for many years had reserved places at public universities and in civil-service jobs.

When apartheid ended, South Africa’s Government began a programme of ‘Black Economic Empowerment,’ which gives white-owned companies points for promoting black South Africans and enabling them to own shares.

In US, the Federal government awards billions of dollars a year in no bid contracts to companies owned by women and minorities. Gaining admittance to many of its top universities is easier for black and Hispanic applicants than for white or Asian ones with similar qualifications.

As the Economist says, supporters defend these programmes in a variety of ways. Such policies atone for legacies of past discrimination. They prevent certain ethnic groups from being shut out, intentionally or not, of elite social and economic strata.

“They break (or try to break) patterns of long-term poverty. They foster diversity in classrooms and boardrooms. And perhaps most importantly, they try to correct for circumstances of birth, so that a child born to poor Latino parents in inner-city Houston, or a poor family in rural Malaysia, has the same opportunities as the child of rich parents from upscale suburbs of Houston or Kuala Lumpur.”

Those against reservation of seats based on ethnicity and for other so-called under-privileged say that there are better ways to accomplish the national goals of equal opportunity. They believe, rightly so, that such quotas also breed racial and ethnic discrimination.

It is unfortunate but true that the benefits of affirmative action often go to wealthy members of racial and ethnic minority groups, rather than to those most in need of help. In South Africa, Black Economic Empowerment has proven far more effective at making a few wealthy, well-connected black South Africans even wealthier than it has at lifting the masses out of poverty.

Many have levied similar complaints against India’s system of caste-based reservations. In America, around 86% of black students at a representative group of the country’s most selective universities are middle-class or upper class. A survey of 50 large firms participating in a federal programme that awards no-bid contracts to firms owned by women or minorities found that 35 of these firms were owned by millionaires classified as disadvantaged.

It is time for all Governments of all colours and political philosophy to offer support based on needs and not on race.

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