Saturday, March 22, 2008

Random Thoughts on Race, Crime, and Human Resilience

I'm currently working on a project on memory and South African exiles. I was reading Lewis Nkosi's Home and Exile and other Selections when I came across a passage that sat with me. It's in the essay "Apartheid: A Daily Exercise in the Absurd". After describing some of the odd, horrible and certainly absurd things that went on in Apartheid South Africa (like the court wrangling over such questions as at what point does a kiss become passionate enough to convict someone of interracial sex) he wrote:
One could go on, of course, recounting the morbid aspects of apartheid, but it all sounds so hopelessly melodramatic that the total effect is to undermine people's credulity. Sometimes, people wonder after reading about these conditions how the Africans are able to survive at all. One Englishman who attended a first night of a Johannesburg opera was surprised to find well-dressed Africans who looked reasonably happy, mingling with the white audience. From that he concluded that the stories he had read about South Africa were grossly exaggerated. To my own mind that was the highest tribute anybody cold pay to the indestructibility of the human spirit, the ability to absorb hurt and injury and still maintain a semblance of human dignity.

It made me think about people who, say, visit the West Bank and see people smiling and even dancing and think - wow, this isn't so bad. People make the best of things. They don't sit around waiting for someone to come rescue them - they form formal organizations, they practice everyday forms of resistance, and they find ways to live as happy an existence as possible. Sometimes they live for the moment, focusing on the present, concerned little with a future that looks only bleak.
He continues:
Africans have learned that if they are to remain sane at all it is pointless to live within the law. In a country where the government has legislated against sex, drinks, employment, free movement and many other things, which are taken for granted in the Western world, it would take a monumental kind of patience to keep up with the demands of the law.
They know every time a policeman encounters a black man in the street he assumes a crime has been committed; so why bother to live a legal life?

When people are put in conditions that anticipate their criminality it is indeed a monumental effort that is required to avoid that very thing. I'm thinking about crime among minority populations, like in the black ghettos in the US for instance. Now consider in this context Bill O'Reilly's remarks after Hurricane Katrina:
Every American kid should be required to watch videotape of the poor in New Orleans and see how they suffered, because they couldn't get out of town. And then, every teacher should tell the students, 'If you refuse to learn, if you refuse to work hard, if you become addicted, if you live a gangsta-life, you will be poor and powerless just like many of those in New Orleans.'

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