GUEST COLUMNIST: The racism Mandela surmounted is alive and well in modern Ireland

MYTHS are the stories that groups tell themselves: the beautiful lies that allow life go on. This is a week of great myth making. In the death and interment of Nelson Mandela we are witnessing modern myth being made in front of our eyes. But myths can be pernicious and evil — corroding life as well as enhancing it.

One Dutch word in the English language is ‘apartheid’. It is one of the most socially evil systems ever devised. Mandela played a great role with countless, often nameless others, in destroying and supplanting apartheid. The greater achievement was not bringing down apartheid — it was in successfully replacing it.

South Africa of course is deeply flawed. It could hardly be other, so soon. Neither the role played by Mandela or the ANC can or should be free from criticism. History will slowly but surely winnow his lasting legacy from the Princess Diana-like lather of the past days. Mandela will emerge a somewhat chastened but far more credible figure because of it. What is in progress there and here this week is a great rush to take possession politically, and to profit by association, with an embryonic mythical Mandela.

Given his stature the excavation of any association could see an opportunist through for a generation. Look at Pearse, de Valera or Collins. People here successfully feasted from them reputationally, not for one generation but for two, and the leftovers were served as sandwiches to a third. Mandela the man is gone, now the myth-making is begun. In death he can be used, as he would never allow when alive, by people who if they followed him from a distance never imitated him very closely in life.

The Irish version of the Mandela myth is particularly cruel and corrosive. Racism is a deeply disturbing spectre. It leaves its victims living lives of fear, degradation and a greater likelihood of poverty. If like Nelson Mandela you are black and African, it is not only prevalent, it is pervasive in Ireland. Racism can also be part of your life if you are either ethnically Asian or indeed, Caucasian but foreign.

The myth-making around race in Ireland is pervasive and pernicious. It ranges from “they” get “everything” free to they get “more” than “they” are entitled to. Specifically, “they” are given houses by the local authority, “they” are given hand-outs, prams and even cars by the community welfare officer. “They” have it all for nothing. As we have learnt only too well this past week, charity begins at home.

In our Rainbow nation fully 12% of our people were born abroad. That doesn’t include those born here of non-Caucasian ethnicity and who are likely treated more as “them” than the us who are bathing ourselves in the suds rising off the lather of the Mandela allegory. To be black and Irish is to be a second-class citizen.

Racists do not conform to stereotype. A few hurl verbal abuse, others even inflict physical harm. More, likely many more, silently discriminate by composing their own cordon sanitaire socially and economically around their white selves. Far more collude by failing to engage with the reality of racism in this country. Whatever for South Africa, the myth-making of this week is malignant here because it occludes rather than confronts the reality of Irish apartheid. Irish apartheid is invisible, odourless but not colourless. It is poisonous.

The Immigrant Council of Ireland reported an 85% increase in racial incidents in 2013. This comes on the back of an awareness campaign the council ran on public transport and suggests a latent, under reported underbelly of hate crime. Official crime figures historically suggest a significantly lower rate of racial crime. If you are mugged and called a “nigger” is that theft or assault or a hate crime? Well it depends on how it is recorded. It also depends on whether the incident is reported. The causes around the latter vary from a view of police as corrupt based on experience in a victim’s country of origin to a belief the matter won’t be taken seriously by the gardaí here. And if 20% of incidents are occurring in the workplace, how many immigrants feel secure in challenging their employer for action, assuming the employer is not the perpetrator?

There are questions to be examined about the diligence with which racial abuse is recorded and reported. It is clear from the result of the awareness created by the Immigrant Council’s campaign that our society is a less pleasant place than our self-satisfaction allows for. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance in its report this year “strongly encourages the Irish authorities to improve and to supplement the existing arrangements for collecting data on racist incidents and the follow-up given to them by the criminal justice system”. A key test of the credibility of official figures will be when the crime statistics for the first 11 months of this year, the period covered by the Immigrant Council survey, are published. A disparity will heighten concern about an underreporting and under recording of incidents and open serious questions for examination.

Charity and race are inextricably linked in the Irish experience of race and racism. Our myth about our benignity was predicated on an assumption that even in a country that could not support its own people, there were others, even less fortunate who needed our alms. It was our sense of their otherness, their poverty, their paganism that sponsored from afar our denigration of black Africa. Africans on our terms were always the objects of our pity, almost never our respect.

PERHAPS this week in burying Mandela, who is successfully surviving even the oceans of meaningless verbiage poured upon his remains, Africa will regain what it long enjoyed, namely the self-respect and self-sufficiency of its own culture to fulfil its own destiny. The African answer to colonialism, including the colonisation of our charity, is success and success in Africa is a story taking root.

And what of the tribalism, thuggery and kleptocracy that supposedly characterises and constrains Africa. Which of those characteristics do we lack? This island has a sufficiency of all three. There is an acute irony that as we are caught up in the moment about Mandela, Irish charity — our cardinal virtue — is found to have been colonised by the very vices our pity was intended as a comfort for. After Mandela, Africans can no longer be infantilised.

The myth is that we were ever fit to enjoy a moral superiority. It is not a myth, it is a disturbing fact that the racism Mandela surmounted is alive in Ireland. The apartheid which will be buried with him in South Africa is silently spreading like a poisonous weed around housing estates, around our economy and in social attitudes in Ireland. Too much of the palaver in Ireland this week about Mandela is about the projection of our own better selves. Too little of that is true to be wholesome.

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