Hate Your Neighbor

June 18, 1994|By DANIEL BERGER

The Baltimore summit of African-American leadership, in its public manifestations, contained a strong dose of separatism. That is not surprising, given the trend toward apartness on American college campuses, in schools and neighborhoods.

Race relations in this country are not good, and not improving. People may well think that visible difference really is insuperable.

To that I offer a refutation of sorts, though it hardly qualifies as good news.

It is that the most awful, corrosive, hateful and deadly racisms active in the world are between groups that are racially identical with differences so marginal that other peoples cannot tell them apart.

In the years that I spent reporting the Northern Ireland tragedy, I quickly saw that the relationship of Protestant and Catholic was precisely racist in the way it worked, without a racial distinction.

These people looked alike and spoke with the same accent. The labels of name and address were widely used, but not always reliable.

Nationalism is the least inaccurate label for their difference, but inherited religion is what tells most of them which nationality they are.

Stereotyping people of the other group, fantasizing evil about them, blaming the quarrel on them, linking job opportunities, real estate and schools to the difference -- all the paraphernalia of American racial friction -- are rife.

But people from County Wexford in the far south of Ireland assured me that the Northern Irish accent, which they detested, was not Irish at all but Scottish. Meaning the Catholics as well as the Protestants. Many Scots told me they washed their hands of those folk. Meaning Protestants as well as Catholics.

As for the English, most cannot tell Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants apart and are not interested in trying. It is Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants who care about their difference.

Apologists for Serbian atrocities say that the peoples of Yugoslavia are utterly different and can never live together. They have never lived apart. Their ancestors hated the imperial power, be it Austrian or Turkish, not each other.

The self-fulfilling myths of their hostility is largely a reaction to World War I, when Croatian conscripts served in the Austrian army invading Serbia, and World War II.

Serbs and Croats speak the same language, but write it in different alphabets. Croats are Roman Catholics and Serbs are Orthodox, after centuries under rival imperial powers. This religious difference can be profound, even if lost on many Protestants, Jews and Muslims.

But until the mid-19th century, most Serbs and Croatians were illiterate, so it did not matter which alphabet they did not read.

The Muslims of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia are descended from Serbs who were neither Orthodox nor Catholic but Bogomil (a medieval heresy) and converted lightly to Islam under the tolerant Turks.

They are best thought of today as Serbs who may have Islamic names and may pray toward Mecca though not as often as they should. Tito declared them a different nationality, as Stalin decreed that the Jews of Russia were not Russian.

These people may cherish their differences, but to outsiders they are virtually identical, in utter contrast to the Hungarians and Albanians nearby.

The Hutu and Tutsi of Rwanda and Burundi are often called racial groups. Hutu are mostly short and Tutsi tall. But they speak the same language, which no one else does. They have always lived together.

Theirs is a social and economic caste distinction within a single society. Observers have even testified to social mobility, upward and downward, from one to the other.

As in Yugoslavia, there has been much intermarriage. Many people are part one group and part the other group. Intermarriage is what genocidal policies are designed to make impossible. The ethnic purist's fear of intermarriage is not that it doesn't work, but that it often does.

In Japan, Korean immigrants are a despised minority. It doesn't matter that hardly anyone of European or African heritage can tell a Japanese from a Korean.

So when doubters say that the racial and language mosaic of South Africa can never create a single nationality, the answering argument is that similarity never prevented what we call racism.

Any difference however imperceptible will do, even if we have to make it up.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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