Jude Collins

Monday, 8 August 2011

Confidence, Freedom Riders and grim facts

I remember having a conversation with Mary McAleese when she was still a non-President and living in the north. I  asked her did she miss living in Dublin where she’d worked as a law professor and – for a time – in RTÉ. She said she missed some things –  the happy confidence of the people, particularly the young people, and how she’d have liked  her own children to grow up with that confidence. Which  goes to show you: some wishes do come true. 

Confidence: it’s  a magic potion. With it you can achieve all sorts of things, without it you can fumble the simplest task.  It’s the key ingredient the public schools of England infuse in their pupils. Although it’s not always an attractive quality. Some of the clipped-tone British Army officers who inflicted themselves on this part of Ireland during the Troubles were from or pretended to be from such schools and they were a serious trial to Christian values. The same kind of manicured English accent used to afflict the world of  academia, of business, of the media. It’s not so prominent now but it’s still there. And in Britain, look at and listen to Cameron’s cabinet.

These days when I speak to young people  here –anybody under forty is young, OK? – they tell me that while there may have been a time when their parents or grandparents settled for a back-of-the-bus position in this state, their generation won’t tolerate the thought, let alone the deed. It just won’t happen. Cheering up, wouldn’t you say? 

I’m on holidays – a house-swap  and as a result I find myself reading stuff I normally would pass over. One example: an account of the Freedom Rides that took place in the US southern states fifty years ago, as the struggle for racial equality caught fire. Did you know, for example, that many Southern whites  insisted that racial incidents occurred only because of meddling by outsiders – especially the outside media?  Or that most Southern whites  really believed in the pre-Civil War South image projected by Hollywood : a  civilized plantation owner composing poetry at his Louis XIV desk while his slaves sang in the cotton fields?  Or that in New Orleans,  white mothers formed a boycott of the primary school and lined up to scream abuse at  anyone brave enough to break it?  To summarise:  the distant past a happy place where everyone got along, trouble something stirred up by a bunch of outsiders, screaming bigots frightening schoolchildren. Sound familiar at all?

But all that’s fifty years ago in the Southern US. This year, those who struggled for equality there have gathered to remember those times and celebrate the end of segregated restaurants, segregated schools, segregated water-fountains. Lawdy, there’s even a black President of the United States! 

But before the hallelujas start, let’s think: are African-Americans equal citizens today?  Well they have that magic confidence ingredient  - Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, among others,  taught them that – but the facts are a  bit less encouraging. There are more black men in prison in the US than there are in college . If you’re a young African-American, you’re ten times more likely to find yourself behind bars than your white counterpart.  There’s a gap of over 10% between white males who have jobs and black males who have jobs. In education it’s worse: white people are seven times more likely to get a degree than blacks. 

It makes grim reading. On the surface, African-Americans seem to have made progress towards equality; dig a little and the prejudice and injustice are still deep-rooted. 

Sound familiar at all?

Without confidence, communities have no chance.  But having it doesn’t mean the game’s over and won. It’s only starting, and you have to fight for every point.

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