This quarter so far has been making me increasingly impatient about social justice and agitating for meaningful social change. Having seen structural racism, unemployment, underemployment and class inequality in such extremes, I have been at a loss for words as to how anyone can be of the mind that there’s a fighting chance for a just future based on our society’s current trajectory. (“Society” here refers to South Africa, but can also refer to my feelings about injustice in the United States.) It seems impossible to simply transition out of the apartheid regime and create a just society.
As one of our class readings describes, the apartheid educational system – which was structurally designed to turn blacks into members of the lowest caste – was not rebuilt to suit the needs of addressing the damage of segregation. Instead, the transition sought one national curriculum that applied the same standards to all racial groups, even though members of these groups were at vastly different learning levels. Educational justice would have featured a system that re-educated the generations of blacks failed by the Bantu Education Act, a system that recognized that the most disadvantaged of the present generation of students require different pedagogical needs and approaches than their most-privileged counterparts.
While we sat in a high-achieving STEM high school during our first week listening to what the program does for its learners, I was stuck pondering one big question. Why it is that, when legal barriers to structural inequality are removed (ending of apartheid and Jim Crow), structurally disadvantaged groups (blacks in South Africa and the United States) are forced to succeed in the same system that previously sought to limit them? In other words, why are these groups expected to accustom themselves to – and succeed within – structures (like primary, secondary and tertiary education) that were part of old systems of oppression? Why, instead, don’t we redesign our primary, secondary and tertiary schools to accommodate the specific, historic and present needs of these structurally oppressed groups? Why don’t we judge learners not by the tests they were set up to fail, nor the university attainment they were intended never to achieve, but by something else?
The social problems of South Africa, while certainly specific to the context of this country’s history, do not seem that far off from social problems of the United States – particularly those involving (black) minorities in the post-Jim Crow era. It has surprised me so far to hear some of my peers lament about how the educational system fails learners in the townships in ways that are incomparable to educational inequity in the United States. In some states and cities, and particularly within communities of color, there is also overcrowding, underfunding, lack of books or physical education classes (I spent about half of my seven years of NYC public education without any PE classes), issues of students joining gangs, etc. While the magnitude of inequality is different, the issues at stake are the same, as are the underlying causes of such problems. (The same goes for issues of poverty, unemployment, and underemployment.)
This brings me to return to one of my initial comments: that a “just” society seems impossible to achieve under present conditions. To elaborate on this, I begin in the American context: from the country’s founding moment, the United States defined blackness as something excluded from the category of humanity (i.e. “all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights” did not apply to blacks [or women, or indigenous peoples]). By defining blackness as something non-human, slave owners were able to justify the coerced labor of one group to extract profits that fueled the development of the American state and empire of wealth (through cotton, tobacco, and sugar, among others). “Emancipation” did not place blacks on an even playing field with respect to their structural underdevelopment in education, occupational skills, property and wealth – nor did the Civil Rights Movement. As long as America simply removes barriers without recompense or altering its structure, blacks will always maintain a disadvantaged position in American society.
In a similar vein, apartheid (while designed along lines of race) effectively served to police and exploit labor and profits. Systems of dehumanization and segregation provided the bulk of the working class for the sectors in which we continue to see labor issues today (namely farming and mining). Miseducating and undereducating blacks ensured they would inherit the least desirable of jobs. Relocating blacks and colored people away from the city center and into townships ensured that access to power, development and resources remained in white hands.
Apartheid is no longer legal, but its geography, its structural under-education and its class exploitation remain intact.
While I came into this program with a strong critical consciousness, my first three weeks traveling around have sharpened it to the point where I am incredibly impatient for social action. For me, being a “global citizen” means more than being educated or sympathetic about social issues; it is more than doing service. Global citizenship means taking up an active struggle to work with oppressed and marginalized groups around the world to address the systematic inequality and injustice we face.
Recognizing that – just as with service – uncritical and unintentional activism can do more harm than good in an unfamiliar context, my challenge for the next few weeks is to figure out ways that I can meaningfully and helpfully contribute to movements of people actively fighting against the walls closing in around them every day.
Contact Kristian at email@example.com.