Over the weekend, I had a Zoom conference call with relatives from across the world, nearly all of them living in countries other than the US, and the topic naturally turned to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent nationwide unrest. They were naturally disturbed by the reports they heard and wanted to understand what was going on. One of my relatives said that she could not understand why people were rioting and asked what purposes were served by them since they were counter-productive and often inflicted economic harm on the black community itself. What follows was my attempt at an answer.
It is illustrative to go back to a speech that Martin Luther King made in 1967 (just a year before he was murdered) with the title The Other America at a time when there were similar widespread riots. King consistently spoke out against violence but he understood what led to them. In his speech he said the following:
“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
Sadly, King’s words are still relevant today.
In this video interview with CBS News’s Mike Wallace, King discusses this and also addresses the often-asked question of why other minority groups have pulled themselves out of poverty but black Americans have not.
It is hard for people like us Asians to relate to the deep sense of injustice that the black community in American feels. Anthropologist John Ogbu found that there is a significant difference in the way that different minority communities relate to the dominant white community that depends upon whether the minority is a voluntary one because they chose to come to the US of their own accord (such as Asians now and earlier generations of Jews, Irish, and Germans) or an involuntary one (such as blacks due to enslavement, Native Americans due to conquest, and Hispanics due to colonization). He said that voluntary minorities perceive their relationship with the dominant majority white culture quite differently from involuntary minorities. Voluntary minorities are more willing to put up with prejudices against them and even adjust their attitudes to become more acceptable to the dominant white culture because they feel that since they chose to come here, they are not quite entitled to be treated equally. But involuntary minorities feel that they have every right to demand to be treated on equal terms with the white community because they have the same right to be in this country as the white community or even more so since some of them were here even before.
Involuntary minorities have been subjected to relentless denigration over centuries in a deliberate effort to create in them a sense of inferiority and thus justify their oppression and to make them feel the same as voluntary minorities, that it is a privilege for them to be here for which they should be grateful and thus should put up with prejudices and other indignities because they do not have the same status as whites. The sentiment that the US is a white Christian country and all the rest are here by sufferance is quite widespread. (Similar attitudes of racial/religious/ethnic chauvinism, where one group asserts that they are the rightful ‘owners’ of a country and thus have privileged status, can be found in many if not most countries, including Sri Lanka.) The involuntary minorities in the US cannot forget how they and their ancestors were deliberately made to feel inferior and not worthy of being treated like human beings, and that legacy is not easily overlooked. For them, Chauvin is not an aberration but just a more visible symbol of a widespread and long-standing racist attitude, by acting more brazenly than others.
While some members of the voluntary minorities may understand the situation of the involuntary minorities on a intellectual level and even empathize with them (though sadly, some members of the voluntary minorities, especially the more affluent ones, tend to identify with the dominant white perspective), we can never feel what they feel, and this should make us cautious about generalizing from our own perspective and offering advice on how they should behave.