Race, Ethnicity and Difference

Ratcliffe, Peter
Open University Press, Buckingham

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Cover of book Peter Ratcliffe focuses on the UK and its multiple or plural society, the social issues that affect cohesion equality and inclusiveness of its citizenry. How does everybody fit in? He asks if social inclusion is proving difficult or illusionary. An ideal situation would be where there is social stability, common aspiration and expectation and with no difficulty with multiplicity or differences. Can we live together in harmony, as equals and having equal access to societal resources? Ratcliffe thinks society is divided and some feel excluded. He identifies the following exclusion factors: race, ethnicity, gender, class and culture.

Who is excluded from the society and how? The majority ethnic group exclude minority groups or sometimes the minority group excludes the majority (e.g. South African Apartheid); the powerful exclude the weak and the rich exclude the poor. Exclusion is based on “difference” or the ‘other’ which arise from the assertion of distinctiveness on the part of putative groups or may be a function of role ascription or the combination of both.

The book looks at the division in global society and narrows it down to the local society in the UK to see the source of inequality and exclusion. Exclusion or divide is based on ‘difference’. The divide can be between the North and South, first and third world, ethnic minority and majority ethnic group, men and women, upper and lower class. In Britain the divide is between Black and white, rich and poor, ethnic minority and majority, asylum seekers, refugees, low wage earner, black youths and police. Can these groups live together, work together, and respect each other? If the answer is yes or no, what is the evidence? Ratcliffe cites for example: September 11, Rwanda, Bosnia, Sudan, Iraq and Chechnya and other conflicts as evidence of our inability to live together. For the UK he cites, for example, religion, Northern Ireland, race riots, low wages, gender, asylum seekers, and disability. Evidence that we can live together include awareness of global family, fairer trade, promotion of equality and human right, democracy, working together to tackle global problems eg environmental issues, accepting refugees, promoting of race relations and multicultural activities.

Despite good intention or aspiration there is more inequality and division in the society than inclusion and cohesion. Ratcliffe attributes this inequality and exclusion to race, ethnicity, culture, religion and class. All factors which are socially constructed to keep some in and others out. Thus in his view, inequality is based on the politics of difference or the ‘other’.

Race is a social construct because it is devoid of scientific validity yet it has retained a hegemonic position in the public consciousness. It dominates the contemporary western society’s views of human difference. Races are assumed to be unequal in a variety of respects and these collective, intrinsic, natural innate; inequalities are regarded as legitimate grounds for different treatments. This race thinking leads to racism(s), which result in acts of discriminatory nature. The key to contemporary race thinking has historical roots and is an indication of power, invasiveness of ideology of race tales from traders and missionary of strange people from other world not only the importance attach to the physical appearance, they were associated with, but the “deterministic naturalised cultural and characteristics traits”. Most of the difference was black and white dualism. Black is associated with paganism, savagery, barbarism and evil while white with purity and goodness (even though the good and pure enslaved and colonised the ‘others’). These discursive linkages were constantly reinforced and reproduced by clerics, historians, authors of fiction and anthropologists.

False science continues to support this categorisation until it has become a worldview or Eurocentric view of race which means white is superior and black is inferior. This thinking was used to justify slavery, colonialism, imperialism and apartheid. If this is the predominant view how can there be equality in the society, how can there be inclusiveness in access to services and goods in the society? How can the superior and the inferior mix? This fear of mixing has resulted into master and slave situation, poor jobs, poor housing, poor services for the inferior groups and discriminations in the labour markets.

Ratcliffe shows how race difference divides the society and contributes to social exclusion. He dwelled quite a while on race issues because it is a major factor that exclude individuals or groups from the society. Speaking from ethnic minority perspective in the UK the race issues touches everything the majority population do. It affects the minority groups in all aspect of their lives. Race thinking excludes people in the education system, the labour market, under the law (immigration, refugee status, etc.). :

Ratcliffe suggests that to promote inclusive society the following have to be in place or encouraged. All citizens should have equal right, there should be legislation against discrimination, and the society should have agencies that promote inclusiveness. People should campaign against injustice such as civil right movements, empowering the citizens to stand up against oppression of injustice and have anti discrimination laws. These will only patch up some of the rift but will not make the society inclusive. However I do not share Radcliffe’s optimism that promoting human right, legislation, campaign, empowerment or civil movements will remove the barriers to inclusiveness. The above are superficial and will not get rid of racism “the European disease”. The race thinking is embedded in everything in the society and the majority ethnic group benefit from it, and they will want to keep it.

The question is can we live together? – Yes we can live together but not as an inclusive society because the difference will always be there as long as there are beneficiaries.

Radcliffe is frank with issues that many dread to talk about. I wish I could share his optimism of an inclusive society. The band of exclusion is widening and not narrowing. No law will change the way people think. People will always capitalise on the difference to exclude others. If the society is to be ever inclusive, it needs to change the fundamental philosophy of race and difference, which is imbedded in the psyche of the population.

Bertha D. Yakubu
University of Aberdeen