This article gave me a deeper understanding of the race riots that ignited in the town of Ferguson, Missouri over the shooting of African-American teenager Michael Brown earlier this year. Of course the United States has made immense progress in social equality and justice since the days of slavery and the American Civil War (1861-1865). Perhaps the apotheosis of this long march towards equality was the election of Barack Obama as President in 2009.
Unfortunately, that euphoric moment rather obscures the fact that all is not well with race relations and racial equality in America. (Note: native speakers often say “all is not well” when what they mean is “not all is well”, probably because they feel the former sounds more beautiful. This is a fine illustration of how pure native-speaker language is not always based on logic and often not straightforward, a point that Singaporeans often fail to grasp.)
The article rigorously outlines the history of residential racial segregation in St. Louis County, Missouri of which Ferguson is a part. First the local government zoned blacks and whites into different areas. Later, when the judiciary ruled such a practice illegal, realtors took it upon themselves to try to keep the races apart by forbidding a white property owner from selling to a black person. When that too was ruled illegal, the county practised mortgage discrimination (discriminating against African-Americans when they applied for a housing loan) to steer them towards certain neighbourhoods.
What struck me was that this is the very opposite of what Singapore tries to do with its Ethnic Integration Policy which ensures that the different races are quite evenly distributed across different public housing estates.
When different races live apart from each other, a powerful ‘Us versus Them’ mentality can develop. This festered in Missouri with the persistent discriminatory treatment against blacks by the police and exploded into chaos with the shooting of Michael Brown.
The history of racial segregation in Missouri helps us to understand the difficulties in achieving racial harmony there today. It leaves a legacy of ‘white neighbourhoods’ and ‘black neighbourhoods’, and mistrust between the races. An important lesson we can draw for GP is that history is an important facet of context: to understand almost any situation fully, we need to know its history. Always consider the historical dimension when you explore the bigger picture of an issue. For instance, when you contemplate China’s growing assertiveness in the South and East China Seas, take into account their historical humiliation during what they call “The Century of Shame” – the period from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries when the country was weak and dominated by Japan and several European powers such as Britain and Portugal. China is a dragon with deeply wounded pride; it is rising again, and it wants to show the world its might in no uncertain terms.
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