Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Australian Apology Should Strike a Chord with Americans

Australia recently issued a formal apology for the policy of forcibly taking aborigine children for approximately 100 years, ending in 1969. This was done under the pretense of helping the aborigines assimilate into the European style culture that was dominant in Australia after colonization, but obviously taking children from their parents when there are no signs of abuse or neglect simply to make them act "white" is inexcusable. If you'd like to see a pretty good cinematic take on the issue, stick Rabbit-Proof Fence on your Netflix queue.

While this is a nice gesture and a sign of improving race relations in a country that couldn't always be complimented on that aspect of its culture, it doesn't really do anything significant. The aborigine population is still by far the most destitute group in the country, and whenever a group lags behind the other segments of the population in wealth and education, negative stereotyping and discrimination will exist. It's just one of those things that will take time to even out, and apologies, while nice, won't do anything. Programs to help give disadvantaged groups a leg up on catching up to the rest of the population (mostly through education) would speed up the process, but I honestly am not well enough versed in Australian public policy to comment on how well or how poorly the nation handles its responsibilities on that end.

What Americans should get out of this is a reminder of our own similar history of dealing with the peoples who were here before us. American Indian children were also taken away from their parents and sent to boarding schools where they were forced to give up their language and cultures in an effort to help them assimilate into ours, and all of this after a lengthy, but unofficial, policy of genocide was swept under the rug and largely forgotten or ignored. This is a little harder to compare to American slavery, because, while it's another blemish marring our "All Men Were Created Equal" foundation, it just isn't the same. It didn't involve attempted genocide, but it wasn't exactly a facet of our history that brings any less shame.

I'm not one of those who advocate reparations or giving land back to American Indians or African Americans. If that was going to be done, it should have been done long ago and I shouldn't be held accountable for what my great-great-great-grandparents did. Despite this, I don't think that forgetting about what happened is going to do any good. Refusing to acknowledge that much of the poverty, mental health, and crime issues that affect these historically abused groups disproportionately are direct descendents of our policies toward Indians and African Americans in the past allows us to pretend that the issues that affect those populations now are just the problems of the current individuals, and not our culture as a whole. It is the responsibility of the society to help its most disadvantaged members catch up to the whole, and this is entirely different from reparations and giving back land. Everyone benefits if these historically persecuted populations are helped up to equal footing with the rest of us. Poverty and ignorance don't just hold back the individual, but cumulatively the society as a whole. A poor man with no job skills isn't worth much to anyone. He has no money to feed the economy, no skills to help a business succeed, and his poverty drives himself and his offspring to desperation that makes them more likely to become a social burden through crime. So perhaps, this Australian apology isn't just the pretty, but empty, gesture it seems. Perhaps by making themselves say they're sorry, they're also forcing themselves to accept a little responsibility as a culture.

Now, I know many of the more conservative types believe in the doctrine of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and those who are left behind in poverty are there because they're too lazy or too stupid to pick themselves up to a higher social standing, but this entirely ignores the complexity of the human experience. There's a reason that the children of the wealthy tend to stay wealthy, the children of the middle class tend to stay middle class, and the children of the poor tend to stay poor even in the US where there are fewer hurdles to jump between classes than in many societies. The success stories of from-ghetto-to-chairman-of-the-board are the exceptions and not the rule, and with a little digging you'll often find that Mr. Bootstraps had a lot more support at home growing up than the guy who dropped out of school and still lives in the same housing project he grew up in. If a child isn't given a good example by their families, they aren't going to learn how to succeed unless they are lucky enough to have a mentor who can influence them enough to negate the negative influences coming from every other person they care about. Unlike the wealthy, who can make up with money what they lack in parenting skills, the poor kid with no appropriate role models isn't going to have the financial backing to make up for his lack of learned ethics. Instead of drifting aimlessly through college, he's allowed to be lazy in school, and drifts aimlessly from high school into the unskilled workforce before he's old enough to actually understand the consequences of those actions.

I know I kind of went off on a tangent with this one, but it's a bit of a sore political issue this one touched on. I also promise I'll try to get back to the comedic posting that many of you find so desirous as soon as I can think of something funny.


sid said...

Actually I really, really liked this post. It was well written and actually made ME think. I might actually write something similar to this on my blog ... might being the operative word.

Hank said...

Based on my extremely limited knowledge of the system, there were (I don't know about anymore) a number of government aid programs for Indigenous Australians. There was also some dissatisfaction with those programs because a number of people felt they weren't doing much besides pacifying the recipients without doing anything to help them improve themselves.

Chris said...

Very compelling argument. My libertarian friends would not be pleased, but I think you're right on this. Society overall does suffer because of poverty.

However, I question how much, if anything, the government or charitable organizations can do to effectively combat the problem. I suppose the right amount of education and financial aid would help some people escape the poverty of their parents and ancestors, but I'm afraid many people are going to follow in Mom's and Dad's footsteps regardless --- the path of least resistance.

Courtney said...

I agree with Chris. We can do what we can (and we should), but sadly, a lot of people will just mooch off the system rather than shape up. Sad but true.

Mickey said...

Ah, but Courtney- Wealthy people mooch off the system as well. That's how a lot of them get wealthy in the first place. The difference is that the systems the wealthy mooch off of actually do what they are intended to (stimulate economic growth), where the programs for the poor don't do enough to end the cycle of poverty. Yeah, I could try to support this with concrete examples, but I don't really know what I'm talking about. It sounds right, though.

Jacob said...

I don't think that just giving the poor money does any good. I think it does as much to hold them back from advancement, although it does keep them from creating communities of true destitution where epidemic disease and crime breeds.

I don't think there are enough education and work incentives worked into our welfare system. Pay the poor to attend technical colleges to learn valuable job skills. I also think that requiring them to work for their welfare check could be a useful addition as well. Make allowances for the education requirement and for job hunting, but the free money doesn't help anyone build for the future. It helps them keep from starving or being exposed to the elements, but little else.

You'll always end up with people who mooch and won't go anywhere, but that doesn't mean that a system can't be designed that keeps that number to a minimum and helps the mindset as well as the stomach.