Racism beyond the power of government

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2003, 12:00am

I HAVE A confession and an accusation to make. My confession is I am a racist. My accusation is I think you are one too.

It is the way of social vices. We are all victim to them in some measure and we free ourselves from them only by keeping a guard on ourselves in everyday life. People who say they are not in any way tainted by racism are people who do not know themselves.

Perhaps hundreds of years from now some societies will evolve that are truly free of racist prejudice but I doubt that any yet exist. It is still worked too deeply in the cultural baggage that we all take on as infants.

Just ask yourself, have you ever become angry at someone of a different ethnic origin and had a little voice at the back of your head say, 'It figures. He's black (or white or Chinese or Indian) and they're all like that'. It may not have been the only voice at the back of your head and you probably suppressed it but I defy you to tell me it has never happened.

Thus I am more than a little sceptical of the proposal that we introduce an anti-racism bill into legislation. There are many things that legislation can do but altering the neural pathways of the human brain to eradicate a deep-seated prejudice in seven million people is an operation far beyond the skills of even neurosurgeons, let alone politicians who think they can do it with a vote.

But they seem to think they can. We quoted one 'senior source' yesterday as saying: 'We have decided to go ahead with the legislation. Hong Kong is an international city and we have to tell the world that we are against racism.'

Excuse me, Mr Senior Source, but just who are you to make yourself a new Moses climbing up Mount Sinai to tell God to inscribe an 11th Commandment below the 10 previously etched in stone?

Can you not recognise it as overbearing hubris on anyone's part to make such a declaration on behalf of seven million people who may not entirely share that view, however much they ought to? Who made you the keeper of my moral conscience?

And do you not see the irony of making such a statement on the grounds of being an 'international city' when this comes close to implying that people who inhabit such cities are in some way better human beings than people who do not, a sentiment that itself smacks of racism?

Will you also please explain why 'some exemptions should be made to meet some practical needs'? Is there a higher moral objective here than the abolition of racism?

I ask because it seems this escape hatch may be used to exempt recent mainland immigrants from the benefits of this legislation, which is again highly ironic.

Ask these people what prejudice they suffer from most and many will say it is a form of racism practised by their own people who have lived longer in Hong Kong than they have.

We are now to make this official, are we?

I think I understand, however, what this legislation will seek to do in practice. It will make it illegal for employers, schools, associations, restaurants and shops among many others to discriminate against anyone on the basis of ethnicity.

This is entirely laudable in motive but the devil lies in the detail of putting it into practice. How will any commission appointed to enforce this law know that an employer chose one job applicant and dismissed another on racist grounds? It can occasionally be done, but mostly, it cannot unless we grossly twist due process to allow a very low standard of proof or put the burden of proof on the employer, which would mean losing more than we gain in civil liberties.

If we push it, we will probably find ourselves taking the American route, employment quotas for ethnic groups, and schools told to discriminate, rather than not discriminate, by setting aside places for students belonging to what are officially deemed ethnic groups that suffer from discrimination.

There are no other ways to go. You either accept a law that is relatively toothless or you create a perversion of the rule of law to give it teeth or you actively discriminate to stop discrimination.

Experience abroad suggests if you take this third option, you are likely to stoke the flames of racism.

People become angry if given an excuse to think they have been turned down for jobs or school places in favour of minority candidates less able or competent, and that anger quickly becomes a racist one. This is a means that defeats the end.

I know it can be a cop-out to say that racism should be dealt with through education alone. Overtly racist people find this very convenient.

Unfortunately, there still are no better means.

If you find this unsatisfactory, your recourse is to go to the top and take it up with God.

Some things are beyond the powers of government.